Amazon and Overdrive are back in the online librarian conversation (again), this time lead off by a video rant by Sarah Houghton along with posts by David Lee King and the Annoyed Librarian. (There was a post by Bobbi Newman on the topic about a month ago when it first came out as well as my own take.) It’s being described by such terms like screwing, sucking, and other terms to make some conservative filtering software blush.
I still don’t understand the outrage completely. Databases for years have diverted users to outside sites where they would have to purchase the article. Where is the outrage for that practice? How is a book talk or a book club or even a story time not a basic endorsement for a particular book? Or an author talk where we invite authors in and allow them to sell their book on the premises? While I will concede the former does not have an overt endorsement to purchase, it’s still a viable option for the patron and something passively encouraged by the latter. In general, presenters are allowed to pass out advertisements or even sell their wares at programs, even some that we are paying for them to do. While we’d like to pretend it is a neutral arrangement, there is no denying that librarians engage in commercial endorsement even if they don’t mean it.
Why are some arrangements considered to be good and others are considered bad?
While that question simmers in the back of your mind, I think there is a better question to be asking about the Overdrive-Amazon arrangement. According to Sarah’s video, Amazon sends people an email reminder three days before a book is due to be returned and the due date. In order to send this notice, they would need to know what library material the person is borrowing (the Kindle book), that the person is a library patron at a library which has purchased material (authentication through Overdrive), and the due date of the library material in question. To me, this raises a significant question:
Could the information that Amazon possesses about a library patron who borrows books on their Kindle from the library through Overdrive meet the legal definition of a library record?
In New Jersey, Title 18A:73-43 defines and provides for the confidentiality of library records. (Your state may have different definitions and statutes regarding this topic. I’m not a lawyer so treat my interpretations as a layman.)
18A:73-43.1. "Library," "library record" defined
For the purposes of this act:
a. "Library" means a library maintained by any State or local governmental agency, school, college, or industrial, commercial or other special group, association or agency, whether public or private.
b. "Library record" means any document or record, however maintained, the primary purpose of which is to provide for control of the circulation or other public use of library materials.
L. 1985, c. 172, s. 1, eff. May 31, 1985.
18A:73-43.2. Confidentiality; exceptions
Library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except in the following circumstances:
a. The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library;
b. Disclosure is requested by the user; or
c. Disclosure is required pursuant to a subpoena issued by a court or court order.
L. 1985, c. 172, s. 2, eff. May 31, 1985.
At first glance, I think there is a good argument that the information that Amazon has is in fact a library record and therefore subject to statutory confidentiality requirements (at least within the state of New Jersey). It is a record maintained for the control of circulation of library materials; in this case, the license of an eBook for use on the Kindle. While the counterargument is that invokes the first exception regarding disclosing a record as necessary for the proper operation of the library (that there needs to be authentication that a patron is a member of a library that has purchased eBook licenses for Kindle books from Overdrive), I would answer that the proper operation of a library does not include an overt offer to allow a patron to purchase library materials upon the approach and arrival of their due dates. That the very commercial nature of the solicitation (in the disguise of a library notice, no less) represents a misuse of library records and the personally identifying details contained within. I’m not sure of the extent that this would remedy to current practices, but I’d say it would knock off the “would you like to buy the book?” announcements in short order.
There is a better counterargument is that the eBook license does not allow for the establishment of the material in question to be library material in any form; basically, it is and never will be library material. I’m not familiar with the terms of the eBook licensing to guess at the strength of this argument, only to guess that it exists. If that is the case, then what are libraries buying anyway? This position only reinforces the impermanence of eBooks as part of the collection and further erodes the future collection and cultivation value of eBook materials. And as I have said before, if you really don’t like the deal, don’t buy it. (Kindle books through Overdrive, eBooks in general, or whatever it is that doesn’t look like a good deal.)
Personally, I think this is a question that should be subject to further examination by those law talking folks known as lawyers. Your next move shouldn’t be to call Overdrive or Amazon to express your outrage; it should be to your State Librarian or State Library to have your state Attorney Generals check into the possibility of library records being breached. While we can only warn people about the ramifications of their actions when it comes to privacy and let them make their own choices, we can maintain our end of the bargain when it comes to their library records.
I certainly hope someone looks into this.