Skip to content

HarperCollins’ Memento Plan: Short-Term Greed versus Long-Term Culture



Through the benefits of modern technology, HarperCollins can finally be as greedy as it wants to be. As Library Journal broke yesterday, “In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.”

(Update: Bobbi L. Newman has an excellent roundup of the dozens of posts on this issue.)

What concerns me most about the entire ebook model  is not the idea of being forced to buy a “fresh copy” of a New York Times bestseller that’s still circulating a year after its debut, though that’s crass enough.

I’m most perturbed by the long-range implications of an economic model — already based on “license” versus “ownership” — that, if adopted by other publishers, would destroy the role literature plays as our culture’s “memory work” — the growing opus collected and managed by libraries that help shape who we are as humans. Witness the hue and cry over the possible closure of Scripps.

For popular titles bought in quantity that would be replaced or weeded in a year or two, there’s a weak logic to this model. 26 sounds like 26 two-week loans. That’s one year of lending, assuming a standard 2-week period where borrowers return books at the end of the lending period (I wonder if anyone knows this; perhaps  looked at lease titles to develop this model).  At that point, one LJ commenter reasoned, a popular title might well be either weeded or replaced for wear and tear.

But libraries are only partly about the here-and-now. We’re also about preserving the cultural record. We cannot preserve ephemerally-licensed “content” that can be wrenched from us at the discretion of giant corporations. Right now, it appears the only safe technology for the cultural record, in terms of traditionally-published books, is the dead-tree format. I am not being technologically-backward to say that; I’m being culturally forward.

Just yesterday I finished Ruth Reichl’s portrait of her mother, For You, Mom, Finally (which was first issued as Not Becoming My Mother).I checked it out with my iPad from the Overdrive ebook collection provided by San Francisco Public Library. People paid for that book. I was one of those people. I am happy to let SFPL decide how long Reichl’s book stays available in their library; that’s their memory work. I do not want publishers elbowing into our business to make that call for us. Of course, in the case of Overdrive collections, the call has already been made — and not in our favor.

As for Overdrive, they are in an odd place. They want to cater to us, the library community. To do that they have to make deals with the devil.

I’ve left a message on ALA President Roberta Stevens’ FaceBook page. Not long ago she came out swinging on privatization. Perhaps we can get some equally powerful words from her — though I suspect it will take more than words to turn this around.

Posted on this day, other years: