Toward a digital library ownership model

By Micah May, December 14, 2023.
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Since 2017, DPLA has been helping libraries meet the growing demand from readers for ebooks and audiobooks by working with publishers to provide licensing terms that help libraries maximize access and get the most out of their dollar. While the variety of options and licensing terms we have developed have been well received by our partners, they still do not allow libraries to own digital content outright, the way they do physical books. 

In recent years we have heard growing interest from librarians who want to own their digital content. In response, we are developing a model, described below, that would allow libraries to own, rather than license, digital content, without the operational challenges of executing their own deals with publishers, ingesting content and book feeds, or hosting files on their own. 

The desire for libraries to own their ebooks and audiobooks is not new. Pioneering library leaders experimented with library ownership shortly after library ebook service began in the early 2000s. The most prominent of these experiments was at the Douglas County Library in Colorado, where Jamie LaRue developed the “Douglas County Model,”  in which the library worked directly with publishers, ingested files from them, and hosted the files on their own Adobe Content Servers. Similar projects were undertaken by Queens Public Library and CALIFA, who took possession of files as part of its Enki collection. 

While compelling, these projects proved onerous from a technical and operational perspective and, thus, difficult for libraries to scale and sustain. (Only CALIFA’s Enki project is still serving content to patrons from self-hosted servers.)  The issue of library ownership of digital content largely faded from the conversation, until a few years ago when it re-emerged as library organizations like Library Futures began to emphasize the limitations of licensing and the advantages of library ownership. Ownership is important to ensure long-term preservation, as it allows libraries to sustain access to older titles even after publishers no longer license them. (These issues were explored thoroughly in a recent white paper from NYU’s Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy, The Anti-Ownership Ebook Economy, by Sarah Lamdan, Jason M. Shultz, Michael Weinberg, and Claire Woodcock.) 

While the intellectual case for library ownership is strong, practical solutions have been difficult to come by. In particular, few libraries have the capacity, or interest, in building the tech infrastructure required to host hundreds of thousands of ebooks. Thankfully, one thing has changed since library ownership was first pioneered a decade ago: We now have a library-driven platform for the management and delivery of e-content, The Palace Project. Having heard the renewed interest from libraries in ownership of digital content, we set out to explore whether The Palace Project platform could offer a solution. 

In short, in the model we are developing, libraries would own the titles, just as they do with physical books. Libraries would be able to both transfer their books to other libraries and to update books as needed for preservation or to adapt to new formats. Rights holders would retain copyright to their works and all subsidiary rights. Lending would be restricted to one reader at a time with Digital Rights Management (DRM) unless waived by the rights holder.  We would also provide libraries the option of hosting their books in Palace Marketplace or another provider.

We are developing this model through conversations with a number of leading librarians and legal experts, including at a workshop this fall convened at NYU by Jennie Rose Halperin of Library Futures. We have also been discussing this model with publishers and book distributors; while these conversations are in an early stage, we are buoyed by the feedback we are receiving.  We hope to be able to roll out an implementation of this model in the first half of 2024. If you’d like to talk more about digital ownership or The Palace Project, please reach out to me at micah@dp.la


DPLA’s ebook work is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.