Although I’m still gung ho about the Digital Public Library of America, I retain some of the concerns arising in a recent MIT Technology Review article.

For example, how can we  reconcile the DPLA’s various goals and serve academic and public library patrons, whose needs and interests may differ sharply? One strategy would be for public libraries, or a related nonprofit, maybe even the DPLA or a successor, to be able to buy the OverDrive distribution service, which reaches ‘more than 15,000 libraries, schools, and colleges worldwide.’ Talk up the idea well—always easier to do when a service and urgent needs already exist, as is true with OverDrive—and appropriate donors just might materialize.

Now LibraryJournal.com has just published my latest thoughts on the topic, in addition to the past suggestion that OverDrive people stay on in at least advisory roles to help assure continuation of  contracts with major publishers of popular content, plus a transition smooth in other ways. Most of the ongoing revenue could come from OverDrive’s current library customers, except that now libraries would enjoy more direct control over their electronic sides. The reinvented OverDrive could pick up content and technology from the DPLA or others; at least as I myself see it, the related infrastructure could be shared by separate but intertwined public and academic systems building on the nonprofit’s existing work.

To his considerable credit, John Palfrey, chair of the DPLA steering committee, has kept an open mind about the basic concept of the OverDrive purchase (even if he and I disagree on such details as separate systems): ’Not such a crazy idea.’ And in the LJ piece as well as in commentary on this site, I’ve explained why OverDrive’s owners might sell if the price were right—not merely for patriotic reasons but also for business ones, given all the new competition in the library e-book niches. Fingers crossed. Remember, at least for now, OverDrive is still the leader, and a sellout to libraries or a related nonprofit would bring the organization closer to its uses and increase the chances of this predominance continuing.

As for OverDrive’s international presence, I consider it to be a positive. The new organization could not only distribute American library content but also other countries’ items—both there and in the U.S.—and provide technical assistance to national digital library systems overseas. OverDrive would be serving as both the foundation of a U.S. system and a strengthener of international cultural ties.

The challenge is to retain and grow the participation of large publishers and other content providers. OverDrive has faced a difficult enough task with major houses despite the negotiating prowess of its people. Teamed up and enjoying greater technical capabilities and bargaining power, OverDrive and library systems could fare much better than on their own. Publishers, too, would benefit through reduction of middleman costs and a greater reach—with care taken along the way to pay them fairly for use of their wares. Library-created and -encouraged content, too, including the kind from end users? Absolutely. But let’s not forget the typical public library patron’s strong interest in popular commercial works promoted in the media. If the DPLA and publishers wants to boost interest in reading at a time when a fifth of U.S. high school seniors are said to be functionally illiterate, then an OverDrive purchase could go a long way in providing Americans with the right books to entice them.

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(Via LibraryCity.)


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