Boycott? Bad idea.

The library world is up in arms, and rightfully so, following HarperCollins’ announcement that their ebooks will, in effect, self-destruct after 26 circulations. This, despite the fact that their ebooks are already circulated according to an arguably anachronistic print model: one user at a time, fixed duration loan period (usually 2 weeks). HC’s announcement is bad for readers, bad for libraries, and deserves our refusal even as we work to come up with something more satisfactory for all involved.

Many in the profession are calling for a boycott of HarperCollins, urging libraries to forego purchasing titles published by them and/or stop reviewing their books, using them in story times, etc.

This strikes me as dangerous from a freedom to read perspective. I don’t disagree with the notion that libraries have to make tough decisions when developing their collections. We can’t and don’t buy everything. Collection development policies regularly describe guidelines whereby classes of materials are or are not collected by libraries.

In this case, by boycotting HarperCollins across the board, we are choosing not to collect content that our communities want and need. For the most part, content published by HC isn’t available via other publishers. By refusing to buy from the publisher, we prevent the content from reaching the hands of our patrons.

For most libraries, print books from HC absolutely fall within our collection guidelines.

Our library doesn’t buy 78 RPM records. We no longer collect microfilm. But, given a work of interest to a patron, we will make every attempt to obtain it via a format that is available, usable, and affordable. HC print titles continue to fit those three criteria. To pretend otherwise feels disingenuous.

I join Cory Doctorow in encouraging libraries not to spend money on materials protected by DRM. We can do this, and still obtain content in non-DRM formats, like print and CDs. We can justify our refusal to purchase DRM material because it does not fit a library lending model, is a bad return on investment, and presents privacy and usability hurdles that we and our patrons may not be ready to accept.

But boycotting the entire output of a specific publisher is an assault on intellectual freedom and the freedom to read. We buy and obtain content from all kinds of publishers whose practices and policies are far from friendly to libraries. Today, our collections would be meager indeed if we only bought and licensed materials from sources we considered library-friendly. I hope very much that this will change in the years to come. Libraries are taking a lead role in initiating conversations on campuses and in the publishing industry regarding open access, fair use, and developing new models for a new publishing paradigm.

One recent blog post offers librarians a menu of choices for protesting (=boycotting) HC “at your own comfort level.” To me, there’s nothing comfortable about any of this. I remain uncomfortable with the notion of proscribing content based on our objections to policies regarding a subset of a publisher’s output. I am extremely uncomfortable with HarperCollins’ new policy, as I am in general with anachronistic ebook lending policies and the horrific usability issues surrounding ebooks. Discomfort all around. We’ve got work to do. Really: what is supposed to be more comfortable than curling up with a good book?

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3 Responses to Boycott? Bad idea.

  1. Nicely put. You’ve convinced me that focusing a “boycott” on DRMed materials is a more precise and to-the-point protest.

    • 00Bob says:

      Don’t most publishers DRM their material? I’m quite happy with physical items and haven’t bought any e-books but they are the new hype. That being the case how do libraries reconcile not buying DRMed items and their need to supply e-books to patrons? The HarperCollins issue is a matter of cost as much as ethics. Libraries simply can’t afford to keep buying the same title over and over again. I think the argument is that the only weapon libraries have against HarperCollins is an assault on their bottom line. As e-books aren’t a major part of their sales the ‘battlefront’ needs to be broadened to all of HarperCollins stock. It’s a moot point for me of course, I don’t buy them anyhow. I know someone commented on another blog\forum that negotiations should proceed before boycotting but who can negotiate on behalf of the libraries? The situation is like a boss putting the squeeze on employees with private contracts, there’s no union thug to come to the rescue.

  2. Pingback: Is A Boycott of HarperCollins The Right Course of Action at This Time? #hcod #ebookrights | Librarian by Day

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