by Mathew Honan, Playlist Magazine
When you think of an iTunes or iPod music library, odds are you think of a folder stored on a hard drive somewhere, full of music files, videos and podcasts. But iTunes and iPods are starting to take hold in traditional libraries as well—the kind with stacks of books and card catalogues—as a solution for librarians who are seeking to provide access to their digital collections.
Just as the iPod transformed the way individuals connect with their personal media collections, so too is it changing the way libraries help the public connect with mass media collections. Both iPods and iTunes enable libraries to provide new distribution methods for digital collections of books, music, and now, video. Yet with these digital collections come issues of copyright and access that pose new challenges for modern librarians.
“There are a few notable differences [between traditional and digital collections] that are taking up a lot of librarians’ time lately,” said Jessamyn West, who runs the popular and long-running weblog Librarian.net. “There’s the copying thing, the copyright thing and the DRM thing, not to mention the cost versus value thing. We’re moving away from a here is an item, do whatever you want with it to a situation where we have to pass on restrictions and requirements along with the item. This requires a depth of knowledge about not just items such as songs, videos, tape cassettes but also file formats like MP3, AAC and WMV, and how they do and do not work on individual computers and players. Add to that the library situation which usually has computers that are locked down to some degree, when someone comes in wanting to interact with the internet via their iPod, it can be a challenge.”
Libraries have a duty not only to provide the public with access to works, but also to respect and protect the rights of the creators. To solve this, some have turned to iTunes and iPods as a means to meet this challenge.
South Huntington Public Library in Huntington Station, New York, has been running an innovative program for nearly a year now, providing music and audiobooks to its members on iPod shuffles as a way to provide digital content while still respecting copyrights.
The library will load an audiobook or album from its collection onto an iPod shuffle, which members can then check out and take home for two weeks. In addition, if a member already has an iPod he or she can bring it in, and the library will load an audiobook from its collection on it. Currently, there are 65 adult audiobook titles to choose from, and another 27 geared towards young adults. Music offerings include 27 adult albums and 20 albums for young adults.
All of the tracks come from the iTunes Music Store, says South Huntington Public Library director Ken Weil. The advantage of that, he says, is that it gives the public immediate access while allowing the library to maintain control over its collection.
“We Can get audiobook titles out to the public much quicker and at much less cost than by traditional methods of purchasing books on CD or audiocasstte,” said Weil. “We own our own titles and we get to select our own titles, and the available titles from iTunes are an excellent collection.”
In addition, the protected file formats on the iTunes Music Store help the library protect copyrights. Since a track must be authorized in order to play on a computer, even if a member circumvents an iPod’s protections and copies a track to his or her hard drive, that track will not be playable. The library will not circulate more copies of a track than it owns—for example if it owns two copies of David McCullough’s 1776 it will make sure that no more than two go out on iPods—and it requires members who check books out on their own iPods to bring those devices back in to show that the track has been deleted, or have the library delete it for them.
Weil says the program is quite popular—it lent out 102 titles just in January—and that audiobooks tend to be more popular than music.
Also in New York, Union College’s Schaffer Library, in Schenectady, began using iTunes file-sharing feature last summer as a way of promoting its collections. The sharing feature in iTunes allows users on the same network to stream music from each others’ iTunes libraries. The Schaffer Library has been experimenting with it as a way to show off some of its new materials.
Librarian Bruce Connolly started the program after his daughter explained to him how iTunes’ shared library feature could let others access a song from a collection, without allowing them to make a copy of it to a hard drive.
As new materials come in, librarians make some of them available in playlists, adding the library’s call numbers to the file’s comments field. This lets users listen to files and look them up in the library, but also protects the copyright holder’s rights. And to date, says Connolly, it’s been a success.
“The circulation of CDs has gone up about 13 percent since we started doing this,” said Connolly, noting that while he can’t tell with absolute certainty whether or not a CD is checked out due to someone hearing it on a shared playlist, “ringers” from the shared music collection indicate that it’s playing a large role.
In addition to new material, the library also offers special collections, such as one based on Spin magazine’s top 100 albums list, or others based on New Orleans music, Black History Month, and an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day list.
Yet it’s far from a universal solution. The same Apple digital rights management that some libraries see as a solution, others see as a problem.
“Librarians are in favor of broad access generally,” says West. “So, dealing with licensing restrictions with digital media is not only a logistical challenge, it’s an ethical challenge as well.”
“Even though iPods are the dominant mp3 player by far, they marry their computers [to the device], this makes them tough to work out sharing digital files if they use someone else’s computer which is really tricky. You see other vendors saying hey with Apple’s DRM we can’t give you songs on ipods , which is sort of true, and sort of not true. You have to know a lot more about what is going on to be able to even understand the problem much less start to fix it.”