The First Sale Doctrine: e-Books, and the Impact on Libraries – Part 3

This is the second part of a three part series on the First Sale Doctrine, e-books and the impact on libraries.  Check out Part 1 here. and Part 2 here.

Industrial Shelf and Bookends

Where do we go from here?

In a darkly funny, yet informative video presentation at the LJ/SLJ eBook Summit in 2010, titled Libraries are Screwed, Eli Neiburger made some dire predictions, yet also provided a number of solutions to problems before libraries regarding e-content. In essence Neiburger makes the argument that libraries are “invested in the codex, but the codex is now out-moded.” Neiburger makes the bold statement that the current standard of library circulation is not only out-moded but will at some point become obsolete in the 21st Century. The need for a local copy of an item becomes meaningless in an age of instant digital access. Given the restrictions that may be forced upon libraries by e-publishers, the idea that a patron would have to wait for an e-Book to be available seems ludicrous in this scenario.[1]

Neiburger offers that libraries may need to go back to one of its historic missions of preservation of local historical content, however, not only that, but encourage, “the ability to create new content by providing the venue for production tools, event venues, and a permanent noncommercial online home for our patron’s creative works thus making the library the publisher.”  (Neiburger)  Neiburger argues that the future of library survival is to become a unique platform for unique content.[2]

One problem with Neiburger’s analysis is there is an implication that libraries must completely move away from the model of circulating physical content.  While it is true that with high speed internet access the need for local library branches will perhaps become questionable as digital content can be accessed from anywhere, there is still a considerable older generation in both the United States and in Europe that will want physical books to read.  The baby boom generation is perhaps one of the most affluent in the history of United States and they will have considerable say in the funding of public institutions for some time to come.

Another option is for libraries to lobby for new provisions on Fair Use and the preservation of the First Sale Doctrine.  Sadly, this seems a long shot as Congress appears to be unwilling to deal with the rapid changes taking place within digital media. And clearly, the lobbying money is far greater with the e-publishers and digital software companies that would fear a negative impact to their revenues.  The irony is that by following a restrictive mode, digital publishers may well find they repeat the mistakes of the once mighty music industry when it attempted to crush peer to peer sharing of digital music files.

Libraries could through the various professional organizations, aggressively pool their resources not just on a regional basis, but nationally and globally as well.  By doing so libraries could contract for fairer terms with digital publishers, or perhaps even work out arrangements for licensing digital content much along the same lines as one would stream video content from Netflix. 

There can be no doubt that it is a challenging time for libraries and librarians. Added to the attack on the First Sale Doctrine by digital software companies and publishers, libraries are also facing hard questions of relevance during a time of economic upheaval. Yet look at any public, academic, or specialty library website, and you will see a vibrancy that belies the doomsayers. Smart public library systems are more than just a repository of books. These institutions support seminars, community driven initiatives, computer training, and vital access to the internet.  As Neiburger pointed out, public libraries have become centers for the creation of local content.  Plus, librarians are trained on how to sort and find information in ways that the average patron does not know. This is a vital service that is even more critical given that the digital age is upon us, and one that all libraries should be aggressively marketing to their patrons. In the field of academic and specialty libraries, the librarian is a vital resource to research.  Both the professional and paraprofessional can be the experienced guide, providing a clear path through the vast virtual jungle of digital information.

While the acts by publishers such as HarperCollins and the erosion of the First Sale Doctrine are serious blows to the freedom of information, there is recourse for libraries. Librarians have taken on the Patriot Act and won against intrusions of privacy. Librarians can also weather this challenge and continue to provide the vital services and high standards that have made libraries such a vital function of society. 

~Kim Allman~

[1] Neiburger, Eli, (2010) Libraries are Screwed, LJ/SLJ eBook Summit,

[2] ibid


1 Comment

Filed under Books & Stuff, electronic resources, Library

One response to “The First Sale Doctrine: e-Books, and the Impact on Libraries – Part 3

  1. Pingback: E-books redux « The Accidental Law Librarian

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