Should public libraries try to acquire OverDrive?

If you’ve ever checked out an ebook from a library it’s most likely been through a site powered by OverDrive.  They are the leading distributor of ebooks, audio books, and digital content to public libraries.  OverDrive provides the ebook lending platform for the vast majority of libraries that offer ebooks to their patrons.

Ebooks are proving to be incredibly popular with 35 million ebooks checked out from libraries in 2011.  That was more than double the number checked out in the 2010.

This would all be great news for libraries except for the fact that all of those 35 million checkouts were through OverDrive.  They power library ebook sites and provide the entire platform for the ebook checkout process.  All libraries do is decide which ebooks they wish to purchase and then they pay OverDrive a licensing fee to use their platform.

This would all be fine except that OverDrive ends up having a huge amount of control over the ebook experience at libraries.  OverDrive is a private company who’s primary goal is to generate profits.  They do that by getting as many libraries as possible to sign up for their services and by ensuring the publishers continue to offer their ebooks through the OverDrive platform.  Unfortunately, these goals don’t always match up with what libraries would like out of their ebook lending platform.

Libraries have many things that are extremely important to them when it comes to ebooks.  The first sale doctrine, ownership of ebook titles regardless of platform, inter-library loans, DRM, and ease of use are just a few issues that are important to libraries when it comes to ebooks.  These issues have largely been pushed to the back burner as OverDrive has not deemed them to be of utter importance in accomplishing their goals of signing up libraries and publishers.

OverDrive is unusual because they have convinced libraries to surrender their power and representation when it comes to ebooks.  Sure, libraries can make feature requests to OverDrive and can complain to them about issues.  But ultimately, OverDrive decides what they will include in their platform and libraries have to choose to take it or leave it.  Given that there is really no viable alternative to OverDrive, libraries are forced to take what OverDrive has to offer.

This arrangement strips libraries of the power to negotiate for what is important to them.  Libraries use technology providers all the time, but it’s usually the library that dictates the features they desire and the technology provider goes out and provides a solution that meets the library’s needs.  If a given technology provider doesn’t meet the requirements, the library can usually switch to another.  With ebooks, OverDrive is the one in control of the features of their platform.  This removes most of the control that libraries have over their ebooks.

Many librarians have expressed their concerns with OverDrive and some have begun discussing the remote possibility of having public libraries buy OverDrive.

Public libraries would first have to create a unified organization like a national digital public library that would either be federally funded or be funded by a portion of the budget of every public library in the country.  This national public library could then acquire OverDrive through an outright purchase.

The immediate benefit would be that every library that uses OverDrive could stop paying an expensive platform license fee.  Either that or that fee could be used to fund the national public library which would directly benefit local public libraries.

Another immediate benefit is that libraries would be united in the battle for ebooks.  They would have a single organization that would negotiate on their behalf for the benefit of all libraries.  This would give libraries a single, unified voice when dealing with book publishers, ereader vendors, and ebook format providers.

Having a unified organization would provide libraries with drastically more bargaining power.  Public libraries spend approximately $1 billion annually on their collections.  $1 billion would get the attention of book publishers quickly.  It would also get the attention of Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble when it comes to negotiating for formats and a wide range of usability issues.

These are just some of the immediate benefits.  Once a national organization is representing all libraries in their negotiations for ebooks you could see some drastic changes.

A Netflix for ebooks could be created where libraries pay publishers every time an ebook is checked out.  Every single library cardholder in the country could have access to every single ebook available except for new releases.  There would be no wait for a copy to become available.  This would be a true competitor to Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

These are just some possibilities that could happen if libraries were to somehow acquire OverDrive.

Of course, buying OverDrive wouldn’t solve all the problems that libraries have with ebooks.  The book publishers are the major source of pain.  Most refuse to offer their ebooks to libraries and the ones that do have crippling restrictions.  Acquiring OverDrive would most likely not change the way publishers have decided to treat libraries.

Buying OverDrive would be an easy way to give public libraries a unified voice when it comes to ebooks.  This is the most important piece that libraries are missing today when it comes to ebooks.  Of course, public libraries could create a national digital public library on their own without buying OverDrive.  And then when you check out an ebook from a library, you’d actually get the experience the library wants to give you instead of the one OverDrive wants to make money on.


  1. Sue Petrie says

    Hm, since there are already competitors to OverDrive (Freading/ Bilbary), what if public libraries hired a philanthropically-minded start-up to design a cloud-based lending system?

  2. Matt Weaver says

    You raise some interesting points. Frankly, libraries don’t need to buy Overdrive, they need to build something of their own.

    I am a librarian, and a board member with Library Renewal, a new non-profit that works with libraries and for libraries to bring about new infrastructure for electronic content. We are working on a system that will address libraries’ and publishers’ concerns about Overdrive, and reflect libraries’ values of service, access and intellectual freedom. We are working with a group of ten partner libraries from across the country, and of all sizes, to make sure that what we develop will be based on real-world library needs.

    Check us out and learn more, and GET INVOLVED!