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Collaboration Seeks to Provide Easier Access to E-Books

The steady growth of e-books has forced libraries to contend with how to curate and distribute materials in a way that makes them easy for increasingly technology-oriented patronage to access.

Some 150 public and academic libraries are trying to respond to that challenge through a new collaboration with the Internet Archive and Open Library. The arrangement will allow library patrons at participating institutions to access e-books owned and stored at libraries other than their home libraries. Brewster Kahle, founder and digital librarian at the Internet Archive, says the group has come up with a solution in which “the tech doesn’t suck” and “everyone will get paid.”

The collaboration will use Open Library, an existing e-book lending service, as a means to curate the more than 80,000 e-books that partner institutions have offered up as part of the initial push, Mr. Kahle says. Open Library allows users to check out an e-book that can be read through a Web browser or downloaded as a PDF or ePub file. After an allotted checkout period, the e-book self-destructs.

Most of the titles now available as part of the collaboration are works from the 20th century, but as the effort moves forward, the collaboration will place a greater emphasis on purchasing newer materials. Mr. Kahle says, for now, the group’s motto is “Buy what we can; scan the rest.”

Recently, some publishers have expressed concerns that e-books, because they are immune from the wear-and-tear of traditional print books, might undercut profits if circulated without limits. Mr. Kahle believes that libraries have long ago dealt with that problem by simply paying more for some titles than do individual buyers. He said the collaboration is working with publishers, such as Cursor and OR Books, to create more amicable agreements that allow for the purchase and distribution of e-books.

Though most of the libraries in the collaboration are public, Mr. Kahle says, he believes academic libraries will benefit from being able to share the vast materials in their research collections.

Judith Russell, dean of university libraries at the University of Florida, has worked with Mr. Kahle before in an effort to digitize some of the materials in Florida’s libraries. She says that since 82 percent of her budget for new acquisitions is now devoted to digital materials, any effort to better curate and share them is welcome. “We are all watching to see it mature, to see how it grows and expands,” she says of the new collaboration.

Florida’s initial offerings to the collaboration will be brittle books: books in which the “paper has deteriorated to the point that they can’t be handled” but that contain information that is still valid for students and faculty members, Ms. Russell says.

Mr. Kahle explains that the kind of knowledge found in such works is especially relevant for public-library users pursuing genealogy. “Lots of people are interested in research collections; people don’t just want the latest monograph,” he says.

So far, Mr. Kahle says, he has received lots of positive reactions from users, but he remains cautious: “I don’t know if this will blossom,” but it is a step in the right direction, he says.

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