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Questions on digital libraries

Why Borrow E-Books

Borrowing e-books strikes me as a very strange system. An e-book, unlike an actual physical book, is an inherently abundant item. If I "borrow" it from the library it's costless, it doesn't deprive anyone else from doing the same. But the system is implemented such that only a certain amount of copies can be borrowed at a given time.

This obviously isn't in place just to emulate the process for print books. It's an intentional outcome of the interactions between readers, libraries, authors, and publishers. It's an economic system intended to sustain the ecosystem.

It's an outcome of the goal of copyright enshrined in the US Consitituion:

to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

Publishers take advantage of those exclusive rights to create a system that (ideally) meets the goals of libraries (accessbile knowledge for all) while still ensuring they (and the authors they represent) get compensated.

How EBook lending works

As I understand it, the system works like this:

  1. A library can purchase a license to a copy of a book which they can lend out. Licenses have limits on them, in terms of time, number of lends, or even per library 1.
  2. A single person can "borrow" an ebook from a library per license they have.
  3. Librarians, using data for how books are being borrowed, can use library funds to purchase additional copies.

The key difference between this and the process for physical books is that the limit on a physical book is not explicitly stated by the publisher but an outcome of natural degradation and loss risk.

(If any librarians want to correct me on this section, please do!)

Libraries and e-book lending

On first glance libraries lending out ebooks seems like a natural extension of what their nature. However, there's a fundamental shift here. E-book lending by nature is not tethered to a place, and libraries are institutions deeply tied to their place.

Robin Sloan talks about this in Week 45 of his newsletter Year of the meteor:

there’s something that feels depressing to me about the case of, say, a Berkeley Public Library patron who, five years ago, moved to San Jose and hasn’t visited the BPL in person since, but who avidly borrows e-books every week. This is a new kind of “ghost patron” who never “pays into” the library in the same way that every in-person patron does: with their presence! The rustle of their jacket, the creak of their chair, the beep of the book-scanner when they use it, the overall murmur of their humanity—taken all together, these contributions are what give any public place the feeling of vitality and safety. These are real things, not imaginary. People make a library as surely as books do.

Something about this just sets me off. It paints in a negative light something that I see as an unambigously good thing, someone having access to all the books they may want to read.

Part of it is that I grew up (as many many people do) with limited libraries. Expanding the reach of libraries is a dream come true.

This is not to say that the real things that Robin is talking about aren't incredibly important, just that the expansion of ebook lending needn't come at their cost. Though access to books and access to book people are currently tightly coupled, I don't see any reason why this has to be the case! I'm such a fan of the Antilibraries Athenaeum because it's one example of a space where they aren't.

Alternate models

For specifically e-book lending, all the alternative models I can think of fall into two buckets:

  1. We constrain people's ability to consume "content"
  2. We require creators to do tasks at best tangentially related to their creative output

Stated in other terms, Type 1 solutions constrain who can consume content, but Type 2 solutions constrain who can create content.

It's important to note that creators are also consumers, and their works are often directly dependant on previous ones, so Type 1 solutions also to a certain extent constrain creators.


The obvious alternate model here is streaming. "Users" could pay a fixed fee and consume unlimited amounts of digital media, in this case ebooks. Based on their usage patterns a fee is then paid to the media creators.

I'm not sure of the exact breakdown here, but my gut feeling is that in this model the heavy users are being subsidized by the light ones. It also puts an intrinsic cap on the total compensation available for creators in the ecosystem of (subscription fee * number of users) - platform costs, turning it into a zero-sum game.

The "Sell what's Scarce" model

Along side with the streaming model, creators have diversified their incomes to include (and depend on) things that are inherently scarce. Things like concerts,

The downside here is that it means every author has to do multiple jobs. They have to create their works, and then perform essentially, in order to support that their ability to create.

An author's ability to do those jobs well (to be a in demand public figure, sell merch, etc) is not directly related to the value of their works.


This system depends on an authors ability to convince people to give them money, before a work is produced. The problem with this is that it greatly increases the "startup costs" neccessary to becoming a successful creator.

The idea here is essentially instead of paying for access to works, individuals (or companies or the government) would be paying creators for their continuied production of works.

Sell books to fund copies to lend

An interesting extension of the exising library model would be to allow individuals to purchase an ebook if they are unhappy with the wait time of lending, but then use that sale to subsidize the purchase of further copies to lend out.

The advantage over the current library model is that this diversifies the sources of income for a library (away from being solely publicly funded) and allows the "market" to respond to the demand for books.

It does however rest on the assumption that the desires of those purchasing books coincides with those borrowing them.

The relationship between a purchased book and copies it funds for lending probably can't be 1:1. Perhaps something like [quadratic financing](** could be useful here?

Loose thoughts

One unexpected downside of not actually owning the book: you lose the rights to all of the book, including things like chapter names, and textual content. This means that annotations are a painintheass. This specifically happens with kobo's overdrive intergration so maybe it's something that can be worked around but it's very frustrating. It's one of those things that really just drives home why piracy is such a hard target to beat in terms of user experience.