Personal physical libraries are still practical

The libraries have not yet arrived on the net

Despite clear advantages, the eBook is on the decline in Germany. After the sales peak in 2015, the necessary reading devices are gathering dust in many households. According to sales figures, only around 5% of books sold in the first quarter of this year were eBooks. There is still great skepticism about digital reading: The reading devices can hold an entire library, are practical on the go and save a lot of space at home. Still, many believe that reading on paper just feels better. It is difficult to argue against this. The fact that eBooks are usually only one or two euros cheaper than the printed book does not help the medium either.

There is an alternative to traditional reading: if you don't want to or can't pay for each book individually, you can borrow it. Long before the Internet, public libraries created an infrastructure that enables access to knowledge regardless of income and social status. In the digital world, one might think, it has to be even easier. But development is slow.

The eLibrary offers access to digital books. The platform started a good ten years ago and handles the online lending of digital books for numerous libraries in Germany. However, the concept has suffered from numerous teething troubles to this day.

The city library on the Internet

The eLibrary is easy to explain: eBooks, audio books and many other media can be borrowed over the Internet without having to physically go to the library. Recently, the proper name even made it into the dictionary. Onleihe, die: acronym from online and lending. The platform looks appealing, close to the library and somehow familiar. The web design is a bit old-fashioned, on the home page greets a busy advertising clip. The online presence of the online library alone creates the atmosphere of a dusty small town library.

A good three thousand German libraries from Flensburg to Konstanz are now included and act as intermediaries between the user and the digital database. Anyone who has a library card and registers online is there. In addition to several flat rate providers such as Amazon, who charge a monthly flat rate, Stiftung Warentest praised the online loan for its diverse range and declared it the price-performance winner. Time to take a closer look at it.

First install software

On onleihe.net, the website of the onleihe operator divibib GmbH, I can find a colorful graphic under Instructions that explains the process. I select the book that I want to borrow in the browser or via an app, log in with my library card and should be able to download the file directly. After that, I can use the borrowed medium and don't even have to worry about returning it, as the title becomes unusable on its own after the loan period expires. At first glance, that sounds appropriate and user-friendly.

However, if you take a look at the detailed written instructions you will find an important point that the graphic does not mention: “Install the following software on your computer for using eBooks: Adobe Acrobat Reader and Adobe Digital Editions.” Who made it , receives the next task: "Authorize Adobe Digital Editions with an Adobe ID to be able to transfer the eBooks to the eReader." Wait a minute, so my library card is not enough? I need an Adobe ID? What is that?

Online loan as a data collector

A link takes me to the Adobe registration form, where I should enter my name, email address and date of birth. In addition, twelve A4 pages of terms of use and seven more via data protection guidelines want to be accepted. It states, among other things, that I allow the US company to “use” my data and “pass it on to third parties”. By using the online loan, Adobe learns, among other things, the following: unique codes that identify my user account and device, my IP address and thus my approximate location, which books I read, how long I read them and how much of the respective book I have actually read . That is too much personal data just to read a book: For the purely technical maintenance of the offer, at most the user ID is necessary.

At this point, the willingness of some interested parties to take advantage of the offer ends. A look at the official user forum shows that the problems are only just beginning here: Linux users are referred to Wine for lack of real support. Mac users need to find out which version of their operating system works with which Adobe version. The article was read more than twenty thousand times. It refers to additional software, some of which are subject to a fee, and explains that some features simply no longer work with a new Adobe version. Apple and Adobe would refer to each other if there were problems, it says. Even with Windows users, for whom the software is actually designed, problems seem to arise with the Adobe software and Windows 10.

Dr. Jörg Meyer, managing director of the Onleihe parent company, told netzpolitik.org that they were aware of the problems: “Adobe is proving to be a cumbersome system, especially with e-papers, and functions that are important for our users are no longer supported in the updates. The libraries and of course the divibib get the displeasure. Furthermore, the registration via Adobe is complicated and no longer up-to-date. "

The difficulties are due to the rapid development of new offers. "When the eLibrary went on the market over ten years ago," said Meyer, "there was no iPhone, apps or ePubs ... that related to the 'historical' background."

Core problem of copyright

In the course of digitization, the protection of intellectual property has developed into a topic that is and must be renegotiated. Adobe-style copy protection, which encrypts eBooks and only allows authorized access to those who are currently borrowing the book, must not be more than a temporary solution.

This shows a problem that similar forms of digital rights management (DRM) had before: Those who legally borrow books are faced with greater difficulties than those who illegally download the eBooks. Adobe software is a fiasco when it comes to privacy, technical barriers, and adequacy. According to Meyer, Adobe was "the only standard marketable at the time with its DRM". Years later, however, that is out of date, and that seems to be clear to the operators of the eLibrary. And at least: You check "all relevant DRMs available on the market," says the managing director.

All eBooks are loaned out

The online loan operators refer to the legal situation as the reason for the restrictive use of digital books. In November 2016, the European Court of Justice confirmed the practice that eBooks should be handled in the same way as physical books. The principle applies that each issue can only be loaned out once. The online library thus takes the main weakness of the conventional library with it into the Internet. Anyone who likes to read the latest bestsellers also likes to spend weeks on the e-book waiting list when borrowing them from the Internet.

The current e-lending system needs improvement. It should be noted that the online loan currently excludes numerous users. Partly due to privacy concerns, partly because of mundane technical problems. The approach of a common portal of the libraries, which in turn gives their users access to digital media, is very good. The implementation could be significantly better. Because the project is worthwhile: According to a study by the industry association Bitkom (pdf), young people in particular are open to the medium of eBooks and thus discover reading for themselves more easily.

An accessible library on the Internet, preferably pan-European and multilingual, would therefore be a great asset. The online loan does not live up to this claim and the public mandate of the libraries. Copy protection, inflexible copyright, sometimes long waiting times and software problems are still sabotaging the potential offered by the eBook medium. If you treat it like a printed book, you might as well do without it. Because it is precisely in the fact that you can effortlessly reproduce and share eBooks as you wish, which gives you great opportunities.

Some restructuring is required to find a solution. Whatever the look of a real digitized library - it should be different from the online library in many respects.

Update: And indeed, there seem to be the first restructuring. As the operators of the online loan announced, they want to say goodbye to the disastrous Adobe DRM. The previous software is to be completely replaced by the DRM software CARE from the French manufacturer TEA by mid-2019. Additional software on the users' computers will no longer be necessary, but it is still unclear which personal data is collected. At least the user-friendliness and accessibility should improve.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change much of the DRM problem. In addition, hundreds of thousands of older readers will probably lose their access due to a lack of updates with the new DRM software, as many manufacturers have now withdrawn from the market.

About the author

Arne Cypionka

In addition to his studies of European history of culture and ideas, Arne deals with surveillance, network culture and the digital public sphere. At the end of 2017 he was an intern at netzpolitik.org and has been writing here occasionally since then.
Published 06/29/2018 at 8:03 am