Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, May 30, 2016

Why are there limits on reading ebooks?

Millions of books, many valuable to genealogists, are being digitized around the world. The basic question is why are so many of these books, even those clearly out of copyright protection, subjected to various types of restrictions and outright denial of service? In this post, I am using an example from Brigham Young University. This is only one example. I could make a similar issue of almost every private and public library in America. The libraries' attitude towards ebooks is ambivalent to say the least. This is especially true for books that have little or no commercial value but are still under copyright and therefore subject to special, very inconsistent, restrictions.

I have referred recently to my primary example. As a volunteer at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, I can check out most, if not all the circulating books, of the millions of available paper books in the main, Harold B. Lee Library and read them at my leisure (assuming I had any) in my home. But access to the ebooks is limited to students and faculty. This would make sense more than a hundred years ago when almost all libraries were limited to those who paid for access, but the U.S. has had free public libraries since the time of Andrew Carnegie. It is also true that some other big archive/libraries have closed stacks and access is limited to those who qualify for doing research. Again, this made some sort of sense in that the closed stacks protected the collection from theft. But the BYU Library example seems counter-intuitive. It would seem more logical to make the paper books restricted to the library and allow more access to the ebook collection where there is no danger of loss, damage or theft and where the costs of circulating the books are minimal.

Once a book is digitized and online, there is really almost no cost associated with the process of checking out or checking in the book. In addition, the overhead cost per book to maintain large collections is extremely small. If access control is some kind of issue, how about charging a fee for access. But this does not seem to matter, the BYU Library has a Friends of the Library arrangement but even if you donate $1000 a year that does not give you access to the millions of ebooks online and available to the students.

It is possibly an extension of maintaining libraries, especially university libraries as cloistered environs for the academically select few, but that is another subject for another day.

If this is a money issue, then it would seem to be resolvable. If it is a licensing or copyright issue, then why do the students and faculty have access. Normally, a digital library is required to have a copy of the paper book for each digital copy made available. Commercial services such as exist to provide libraries with digital book collections that can be "checked out" from a local library. Utah has such as system through called Digital Utah, Utah's Online Library also known as the Pioneer Digital Library.  The Utah Overdrive collection is pitifully small, the largest non-fiction categories have what you would expect in a small high school library. In comparison, the Phoenix Digital Library maintains collections over four times as large in the same categories. This is not necessarily a function of the size of the population. The Digital Utah Overdrive or Pioneer Library is comprised of almost every library of any size in the entire state.

Surprisingly, one of the major free components of the Digital Utah digital library is a huge collection of material from Brigham Young University. In addition, the Library has partnerships with three major, free, online digital libraries: the Internet Archive, the Mountain West Digital Library and the Digital Public Library of America.

For genealogical research, size is important. Genealogically related books are not usually in demand by library patrons and maintaining a sizable collection can be expensive and have little or no general public appeal. So where do we go? Well, the Internet Archive ( has a huge collection. also has a huge online collection of genealogy books, but a significant part of the collection can only be accessed from inside the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or in a Family History Center. Lately, the largest collection of books and periodicals specifically for genealogists has been put online by Of course, is a subscription service and therefore has an incentive to maintain large, searchable genealogical collections. But the presently has close to half a million fully searchable genealogy books online.

The real bottom line problem here is the future of libraries. Why do I need I library if I can get any book I want for a nominal fee from or or for free from or Google or FamilySearch of any of hundreds of other online ebook websites?

As a self-fulfilling result of the restrictive attitude of libraries, library usage across the United States is in a slow but constant decline. See Pew Research Center, Libraries and Learning. Many libraries, like those in Utah, do not put much emphasis, if any, on their digital book collections. Additionally, offering ebook collections does not seem to enhance in library visits. In fact, it is likely that those who use ebooks the most, are probably even less likely to visit a library in person. The role of libraries in the face of the technological changes is unclear.

From any standpoint however, limiting access to ebooks in not in the interests to researchers, including genealogists, or any other serious readers. If the libraries do not supply the ebooks then the online, commercial entities, such as will certainly compete and the libraries will be the losers. As I have written recently, why would I donate to a university library who did not provide me ebook access when for far less than my contribution, I could purchase a full, unlimited subscription to Kindle Unlimited Books with millions of volumes available?

I am in the business of information and I have been most of my life. I shop information the same way some people shop the prices of physical objects online. If I find information cheaper from non-library sources then libraries lose the "sale." If they lose too many sales, they go out of business. End of story.

More later.


  1. Enjoying your thoughts on this topic. Practices need to change.

  2. The Dallas Public Library (Texas) currently charges non-residents an annual fee of $250 to check out an unlimited number of books (annually) as opposed to $25 for five items. That $250 will not allow you to download from Overdrive or use library databases. Meanwhile, other libraries in the county will issue a library card to any one who can prove residency in the state. Needless to say, I can buy a lot of books for $250 a year.

  3. Anyone with an Ohio mailing address can get a library card from the State Library of Ohio and have access to their ebook service.

  4. You should know that in the case of OverDrive it is NOT the public libraries limiting checkouts and limiting access. It is the Publishers. And Authors. Yes, you are right that once a book is digitized it costs very little to publish it multiple times. However, someone has to pay the authors or there won't be any authors.

    1. Apparently, you have not talked to a library administrator about Overdrive. The libraries subscribe to Overdrive and the number of checkouts is part of the subscription price. The situation is facilitated, in part, by the outmoded and unreasonable copyright laws. How many books they can provide and how many copies of each book is a function of the money the library can spend. The cities and counties that provide the funding ultimately make the decision as to how many books are offered.

    2. While I agree with your statement that ultimately the #of books offered is controlled by the funding of the library, how is this different than a physical library? That too is limited by space constraints of a building funded by the municipality.

      And your reply does not answer the question about authorship and the need for publishers/authors to get paid.

    3. Your comment indicates that I will need to expand some of my observations. I will address the economics of information in a post. Thanks for the questions. Good ideas.

  5. Your view of libraries as warehouses of books is very 19th century. And your claim regarding the "restrictive attitude of libraries" is very narrow. As a librarian in an urban public library with a significant genealogy collection - Onondaga County Public Library, Syracuse, NY - I can tell you there is no lack of demand. The portal of entry to libraries may have changed but not the demand. People still read, people still seek help from librarians be it writing resumes, or doing genealogy. But they often enter the library via the library's website, contact the library thru email, online chat, text. To apply the notions of Carnegie to the library of 2016 is not fair. And with regard to ebooks libraries are restricted by vendors and copyright - Overdrive, Amazon - they control content in ways you cannot imagine. Simplest example is - take a look at their restrictive licensing practices when it comes to libraries. You err when you place blame on the institutions that are fighting for access - dig deeper.

    1. Apparently you did not read what I wrote. I do not blame the libraries at all. They are bound by copyright laws they cannot control and funded by their constituency or sponsoring entities. But you are wrong about the usage. Library usage is slowly declining and online access is stagnate. See
      This is a complicated situation. Thank you for your comment.

    2. I will keep writing on this subject because it matters.