Sad Reports from the Field

I'm feeling much like a zinester* in that I have an urge to apologize for the way that this site has not been updated in quite some time. Setting this aside and the trials and tribulations of two overworked people (in terms of this greater project), this weekend set me over the limit in terms of being a person who tries to help students and fellow librarians to access electronic texts that are extraordinarily restricted. So I thought I would share some incidents from the field about the real-life implications of DRM.

I work in a library where we have subscriptions to a variety of ebook packages sold to us by vendors. Most of these show up in our local catalog and link you through to the text, which you can read through the vendor's platform or perhaps download, print or save in parts (even this is difficult to describe in generalizations because even among the small batch of ebook collections we have, the vendor's licensing agreements can vary in extremes). It seems that vendors have heard that we readers would prefer to have certain abilities to print/copy/save, but their desire to restrict usually wins over common sense applications of these abilities.

Two days ago, a student came to our reference desk looking for a copy of a book for which their professor had given them (and every person in their class) a syllabus which instructed them to locate the library's ebook copy of an assigned text. This professor had probably looked in our catalog, discovered that the electronic copy of the text was listed and therefore not placed a print copy on reserve. I don't blame them--this makes sense. The problem was that when this student came and asked for guidance in opening this ebook at the reference desk, we went into the catalog with him, and opened up the electronic copy of the book. We could see/view/read the ebook for that moment. HOWEVER, due to a variety of issues (poor internet connection, the fact that we were helping on a five-minute catalog lookup station, trying to duplicate a search to verify and show the student where to click one more time, etc.), when the helping librarian hit the back button and tried to try it again, the ebook was no longer available. It told us the book was "checked out" and could not be used. Now we are aware that some vendors will sell the sad, incomprehensible "single viewer" version of an ebook to libraries, BUT in this case, we hadn't logged in to any accounts nor had the two realized they were "checking out" this title upon clicking. And since no one had logged in, essentially the book had been checked out to the ether. After the glorious tab that had originally displayed the text had been lost, we tried to open the book on multiple machines (including the original machine, in the same browser session), all to be told that it was inaccessible/in use--even though there was no person, or account, that was actually using the book.

Most often at this point, the exasperated student would give up. They would seek a friend who bought the text, go to another library for a copy, or go to class without having done the reading (because often for the students at my college, buying the book is not an option). But this student was patient, and my colleague on duty was perplexed, and so we told the student we would try our best to figure it out (also, the pressure of knowing an entire class of students would be seeking this book made us all anxious to get on top of this). The four staff members at the desk then put their heads together to try to conquer this problem. It involved creating accounts for this vendor, loggin in to those, moving to specified machines that had Adobe Digital Editions installed, creating an account and logging into that program. It also involved a lot of refreshing and trying again to open the ebook. After two hours, one of the librarians found that the book was (magically) available again. They tried to download it for the student only to have it peter out amidst downloading (perhaps again our poor internet connection) and not work at all, only after having "officially" checked it out and made it unavailable to anyone else for 24 hours.

This is ten thousand times more frustrating for a student than if we told them we had no copy of the book that they needed. It is ten thousand times more frustrating for me to try to describe why all of these things COULD work, but they don't.

The second incident I had within the last two days was equally aggravating. Almost every student in our school takes a certain class and has to read a certain book that has LONG been in the public domain. But they have to read a particular translation, which is still protected by standard copyright. A large number of print copies are available in our library, but they go quickly at the start of the semester. We librarians have been investigating whether we should, or could, purchase some kind of multi-user ebook version of the text. In investigating this this week, we saw that a certain bookseller listed a "free" (of charge) copy of this book that was available to you if you installed their "app" on your device. Although this is not really a solution in the long term, when a desperate student asked me this weekend about finding an electronic copy of the book for class in less than two days, I sent them a an email with a few links and explained how I thought that the process would work (install the devilish proprietary software on your machine, download the text, and their problems would be solved, right?). But since I was curious about whether this was too good to be true, I tried it myself at home last night.

What I found was that not only did I have to install two different kinds of software packages on my machine (because only the version marketed to students actually works, and only when using the big proprietary operating systems), but that FINALLY when the ebook opened, it was not only NOT the translation that our students need, but it was a Google Books copy of this text. It was not only not displaying the work in English (the language that this translation is written in) but it was, as a colleague who also tried it at home described "English transliterated from Roman letters into the closest Greek letters, with the occasional British pound sign thrown in too."

Here's an idea of what this book looked like when you opened it:
Ι. ΡοείΓγ.

So I emailed the student again, explained that I couldn't get it to work, apologized, and gave a link for a guide where they could perhaps buy a cheap copy. They wrote back and said basically that they would use whatever they could find on the web (not the right translation that the rest of their class would be using).

All of this leads me to believe that an ebook with DRM is not a book. Is it really fair for libraries to list these partially accessible, restricted and disappearing texts in our catalogs as if they were an acceptable replacement for print, when they clearly are not?

Despite the efforts of vendors and publishers to create new functionality for ebooks that allows downloading and printing, any system that relies on DRM will only result in situations like these, in which patrons are frustrated and are restricted from using the books that a library has paid for.

*Zinesters often open the introduction of their zines by apologizing for the time it took to be published. Here's some other things they say.


I am a faculty meebmr, not a student, but I am excited about the growing online collections of old, out-of-print books (whether Googlebooks or U Michigan collections). Often it is the only way to get copies to use in class.However, I have discovered that all e-books are not alike. Facsimile copies that load one page at a time require a very fast internet connection, and I and my students have sometimes found the university networks too slow. My students do like having the documents online, though, since they can work with them anywhere. The ability to print and/or download the entire work or large chunks of it is essential. Hard copies are needed for class discussion, and useful in places where internet access isn't possible. Printing or downloading one page at at time takes too long. Text and facsimile collections both have their uses text has the benefit of smaller file size, but long texts are unwieldy for research and discussion if page numbers aren't preserved or some other passage location feature (line numbers, paragraph numbers) introduced.

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