The Digital is Ephemeral: Ebooks and the Future of Library Collections
For the better part of the 19th century, the best-selling novels were written by women, but one would never know this by looking at library collections today. These were “domestic” novels, chronicling what life was actually like for women, read by women, establishing writing as literary scholar Nina Baym says “as a woman’s profession and reading as a woman’s avocation,” and, therefore, canonically worthless. Only Jane Austen, and a handful of other women writers from the time, had enough crossover appeal to enter the canon and be preserved.
What brought to mind Austen and her forgotten peers was this: I was trying to determine whether Short Story Criticism, an over 200 volume print series of critical analysis of short stories, was included in a large digital collection my library had “purchased.” I was on a quest for scholarship about Lucia Berlin. Only recently rediscovered, Berlin was the 20th century opposite of those 19th century women writers, published mainly in literary journals and by small presses, critically acclaimed (her story collection Homesick won an American Book Award in 1991), but not popular.
The impetus? To weed, or “deaccession,” the 200 print volumes for which my library “owned” the digital counterpart. Deaccessioning is standard practice in libraries and archives. Librarians are curators: they select material, and they deselect. Although the long-term preservation of books as cultural heritage has traditionally, and rightfully, been the domain of libraries, shelf space is finite and, therefore, valuable. Library administrators can easily argue that once a library acquires the digital version of a work, it no longer needs to maintain the physical copy. If I could find scholarship about Berlin in the print edition of Short Story Criticism and compare that content with the digital version, I could determine the extent of replication before making a decision about deaccessioning the print volumes.
The reality is that “purchasing” digital content is not the same as “owning” it — at least not in any way that we’ve historically understood it. An individual owns a house until an ember ignites the roof and the house burns to the ground. A library owns a book until the spine splits and the pages fall out. But this kind of destruction can’t happen in the digital world. Digital books don’t have a “natural” lifespan, so publishers often invent one. HarperCollins did exactly that in 2011, when they decided that 26 checkouts of an ebook constituted the lifespan of that book. Upending a standing deal between the big six publishers and libraries, they began imposing restrictions on the shelf life of their ebooks — about one year of use — after which the book would vanish from the library’s collection. Prior to that, the agreement had been that once a library bought an ebook, it could lend it out, one reader at a time, an unlimited number of times, in perpetuity.
In 2009, Amazon abruptly erased thousands of copies of 1984 off people’s Kindles. Citing reasons of illegality — an edition of the ebook was made available in the Kindle store by a company that did not own the rights to it — Amazon decided to address this breach of copyright by deleting those illegal copies. Amazon effected what is known in the tech industry as digital rights management (DRM), or, as many in the library profession say, digital restrictions management. This means that nobody who buys an ebook actually owns it. Instead, they purchase a license to access the content. DRM prohibits libraries from, say, putting deaccessioned copies of ebooks on a virtual booksale shelf, like they do with the physical books in their collection. It’s also the reason why one can’t lend one’s ebook to a friend. Or burn it after reading.
Redefining practices of ownership and lending has brought about massive cultural and economic shifts within libraries. One of the standard ebook models in academic libraries is the subscription package. While the boon is that libraries gain access to a wide range of titles they may not otherwise be able to purchase, the reverse is also true: these packages force the acquisition of a vast number of ebooks that librarians would not otherwise select. Whereas librarians once used their knowledge and expertise (of subjects, of their patrons) to select books for their collections and communities (and choose what to discard), the subscription model removes this curatorial authority altogether.
The subscription model is one of access, not ownership — and fleeting access at that. Publishers and vendors routinely re-negotiate licensing agreements and books rotate in and out without much notice, much like streaming services do for TV shows and movies. The reality of 10 Routledge titles suddenly exiting a library’s collection may not seem all that urgent compared to what’s leaving Netflix in February, but consider this scenario: with increased need for faculty to assign low-cost or no-cost textbooks to students, one of the great advantages of ebooks, what happens when that required text suddenly ghosts, right before the midterm?
In addition, institutional licenses for ebooks can be prohibitively expensive and often come with restrictions: a three or five-user-at-a-time model, for example, versus unlimited access. Even for digital content that libraries have purchased — perpetual access versus subscription access — they often have to pay additional annual fees in order to maintain that “perpetual” access.
So what happens to digital material libraries “own” when they can no longer afford these yearly access fees? What happens to knowledge when a slash in the library’s budget necessitates canceling the electronic collection after it has already deaccessioned the print version?
Librarians could, in theory, examine lists of deaccessioned or disappeared works, look at relevant curatorial information (author, subject, publisher, age of work, etc.), consider use statistics and the current and future reading and research needs of their communities, research which works to reacquire, if still available, and how to reacquire them. In practice, however, such processes are inefficient and costly. The majority of these works would simply not be replaced.
Digital collections, especially ebooks published with DRM, present particular preservation risk, making it difficult for libraries to continue to ensure long-term access to a culture’s published heritage. Librarians and archivists collect and preserve the works with which notions of identity are built.
So how do we ensure future access to, and preservation of, those voices we overlooked in the past? Voices of Austen’s contemporaries, for example, like E. D. E. N. Southworth and Maria Cummins and so many other popular 19th century women writers most of us have never heard of? Or the voices of queer and non-binary people or people of color that have yet to be “discovered” because we — librarians, publishers, and mainstream culture at large — do not value them?
The precariousness of marginalized voices is compounded by the instability of library collections. And the most valuable collections documenting the lives of marginalized people reside in marginal spaces, outside traditional and more accessible settings like large academic or public libraries. For non-marginalized voices, the chances of long-term access and preservation are simply higher; they are more likely to be published by mainstream presses whose books are widely reviewed, lauded, available, and collected by libraries, in both print and digital formats. In turn, it is these writers who are studied, scholarship about whom will also be made available in multiple formats. For publishers and vendors, these are the writers more likely to sustain profitability, whose works they will continue to make available for purchase or subscription.
Less so for marginalized voices that aren’t widely published, reviewed, honored, and collected. Their works, like the digital medium itself, are ephemeral, less likely to be made available as ebooks and therefore omitted from purchase and subscription packages. As authors, they are also not widely studied until much later, if and when alternative literary histories are written. These belated “discoveries” often happen when their works, published by small, independent presses, are rare or out of print, and no longer available for easy acquisition by libraries.
Which brings us back to Lucia Berlin. Berlin, like Southworth and Cummins, wrote about the lives of women — their work, families, relationships, landscapes. (She was a leader of autofiction before the term existed). Yet despite the publication of six story collections during her lifetime, it was only with the posthumous publication of a volume of her stories by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux that libraries began to widely collect her work. In turn, with the validation that republication of Berlin’s stories by a mainstream press bestows, her work will begin to be considered seriously by literary scholars. It is not surprising, then, that neither the print nor the digital version of Short Story Criticism yet includes any scholarship on or mention of Berlin’s work.
Given this omission, and the omission of other female and non-canonical voices, what would be lost, really, if the print volumes were jettisoned? Or, more accurately, who would be lost? Mostly, these were writers already well-represented in library collections. Paging through each entry, however, author by author, I realized that digital material is simply not presented in the same way that print material is. In Short Story Criticism, for example, essays are clustered together, with editorial intentionality, in a particular thematic order. In the digital version, the essays are spliced and disparate, unmoored from their original, curated arrangement. Five to 10 percent of the content is missing entirely. The mystery of research, the serendipity of browsing, of association and discovery, is lost.
Based on this argument, I’ve been given permission to keep the over 200 volumes of the print series, despite our acquisition of the digital edition. Yet my larger question remains unanswered: how will libraries collect and preserve the works of underrepresented writers going forward?