Kicking Into (Over)drive

A storm broke on February 26th when word got out that publisher HarperCollins had unilaterally decided to limit the “shelf life” of its ebooks catalogue. Overdrive, a major distributor of ebooks in the public library world, found itself caught between the publishing powerhouse and a furious library community when it was announced that library loans of ebooks would be capped at 26. After that, the book will disappear from the library’s collection automatically. If the licensing library wished to keep the title, another virtual book would have to be purchased.

I was attending Podcamp Toronto at the time, so learned about the controversy via Twitter. Search #hcod to see how quickly the library community mobilized, and the nature of the discourse. It’s fascinating. A boycott was proposed and debated. Overdrive moved to segregate HarperCollins titles into a separate catalogue. HarperCollins wrote an open letter to the profession, on a blog unfortunately titled “Library Lovefest”. It’s pretty safe to say that the prevailing attitude in Library land can be taken from Tina Turner: “What’s love got to do with it?” The response to the open letter has been interesting as well. I particularly like this video response, which lacks the vitriol of many of the comments on the Lovefest post.

The HarperCollins situation concerns typical public library content. Many of the titles in the ebook collections are works of fiction, borrowed to be read cover-to-cover. These issues haven’t yet arisen in law libraries, where the adoption of the ebook format has been slower. There are many questions to be answered as librarians consider adding ebooks to their collections. Some of these issues have already been raised on SLAW, in posts from Susannah Tredwell, Ruth Bird, Michael Lines and Ted Tjaden, for example. 

A panel discussion at a CASLIS Toronto event in February may provide some insight into the future of libraries in an ebook world. Denise Schon, Program Coordinator for Centennial College’s Book and Magazine Publishing Program, says we’re already starting to see an evolution in the way some information is delivered. 

Consumer health information is “dead” in paper, she declared – the internet has become the place that people go to for guidance. What is the future for legal publishing in a world where government and legislative documents are increasingly available online, and where courts and tribunals publish to the web? 

Remember the CED on CD-ROM? Turns out that it may have been a product ahead of its time. When the library that I was working at in the 90’s bought the CD version, I was horrified to see students firing up the CD and printing page after page. When we realized that the cost of production was being subtly pushed over to us, we went back to the looseleaf. 

Back in the day, I sent students to the CED when they were faced with a topic for the first time. “Have a look at the chapter on the topic – it’s like a textbook. Get a useful overview of the major questions and issues on any given topic, with pointers to the leading case law. It’s like a law library in looseleaf form!” And that’s how students used it. It was the go-to source when they were faced with something novel. They’d read and browse through the pages, developing an appreciation for the law as it operated in that topic. They might photocopy a few pages, but they didn’t reproduce the whole chapter, as they did with the CD. 

Today, I doubt that many students are even aware that a paper version exists! They’re more comfortable with browsing online. They will employ search strategies to find the particular paragraphs which address the issue they need to understand. Linking helps them move between logically aligned topics, and they can pop in and out of case law as needed. The process has evolved. The content hasn’t changed, but our ability to use it has caught up. 

Ebooks are another such evolution. There will be growing pains as the marketplace figures out how to price and distribute this new format. Fortunately, the legal publishers will have the example of the “public library” publishing houses to learn from, and as the academic publishing world moves onto hand-held devices, more lessons will be learned. How would you price the CED ebook? How about a legal textbook? Annotated statute? How granular can the pricing get – will we be able to buy paragraphs, chapters, tables of cases? What costs will get passed along to clients? Should libraries buy readers, or just make content available? Will publishers opt to market directly to practitioners, and bypass the library “middleman”? 

Hang on, kids – the ride’s going to get bumpy.

(P.S. Jeff Miller, Tim Knight and I will be discussing ebooks, libraries and legal publishing at the CALL conference in Calgary this May. I can’t promise you any answers, but the questions will be provocative!)


  1. Some publishers will, of course, adhere to the practice of bypassing the librarian. In fact, they already do that.

  2. “…I was horrified to see students firing up the CD and printing page after page. When we realized that the cost of production was being subtly pushed over to us, we went back to the looseleaf.” What was the publisher/info provider reaction to the rejection of the CD? Did they use the feedback as a learning experience to produce read-only CDs, ie, with all the capabilities of search/find, copy (format would be compromised when imported) with the exception of printing being prohibited?