Librarian in Black Sarah Houghton

California librarian Sarah Houghton has recorded a video call to action over privacy (and advertising) issues in Amazon’s new program to let library users check out ebooks for their Kindles.

You can watch the 10-minute video on her blog “Librarian in Black”, (or at tinyurl.com/LibraryResponse). While preparing a post about the video for my Kindle blog, I typed out this complete transcript.


I’m very, very disturbed about the new Kindle lending practice that Overdrive has implemented. It’s a new service. It’s something a lot of libraries are very excited about, and with good reason. But there’s a lot going on here that I think library staff are not necessarily aware of or have really thought through. Because in our greedy attempt to get content into our users’ hands, we have failed to uphold the highest principle of our profession, which is intellectual freedom. And that’s not acceptable.

So Hello Amazon, hello Overdrive, and hello librarians. So I think there are a lot of things about this service that distress me. And as Bobbi Newman said, we got screwed, that in this beggar/orphan role
I think was the phrase she used, that we’ve fallen into as libraries to get digital content to people, we are, I guess, satisfied with dealing with pitiful, sad little scraps of junk that are not acceptable to us, because we’re just happy to have anything. And Gary Price had some really wonderful reactions to this as well, predominantly from the user privacy perspective, asking quetsions about what data is being kept by Amazon and for what purpose. And a really good question that he asked was are library users even given the choice to scrub personal library data from Amazon’s servers, or do they just stay there forever? And that’s a really good question

So how is this different, right? Well, unlike on all the other formats and devices, when you check out a Kindle book from Overdrive, it dumps you out on the Amazon web site, and you conclude the transaction there. And the transaction ends with a pitch for you to buy more books.

And you also get two e-mails that look something like this. And note that I wrote B.S. Because it is B.S. The e-mail is very disturbing. It says, “Hello, Sarah Houghton. Your public library book will expire in three days.” You get a warning at three days, and one when it does expire. “If you purchase ‘Winter Girls’ from the Kindle Store, or borrow it again from your local library, all of your notes and highlights will be preserved.” And then there’s big button to buy the book. Okay, two things. One, it’s no accident that the purchase choice is listed before the, “Oh, yeah. And you can borrow it again from your library” choice. So, right there — Amazon, please switch those two? That would do a little bit toward building good will.

And then, “Buy this book,” right? So many libraries have a rule that we cannot endorse companies or promote a particular product or service, and with one fell swoop many of us are now doing that through this Kindle lending program that we have through Overdrive. So hey, are we aware of that? Probably not. So that’s not cool. So we need to tell Amazon and Overdrive that that’s not cool.

The other thing that’s really distressing is that all of the data about users’ borrowing practices with library ebooks is being kept by a corporation now. So Kindle has allowed Amazon to harvest all of this borrowing data. So it’s an instant violation of all of our privacy policies. So most of our policies in libraries have some statement of “This is the data that’s kept by us or our vendors or if you’re on our web site or if you’re using databases.” Guess what. It’s moot. Right? Because if they’re using a Kindle, Amazon’s keeping friggin’ everything. And we haven’t told people that, and we need to tell people that. So one thing here in California, particularly, is that recently a state bill was passed, 602, called the Reader Privacy Act, which states that library use and borrowing habits are protected as are our purchases from bookstores and so forth. Basically, you have the freedom to read what you want, and not be penalized for doing so. And it’s, I’m fairly certain a very grey area that Amazon and Overdrive are in, because Amazon is keeping data on what our customers are borrowing and they’re not really supposed to.

So according to this bill, I might be violating state law simply by putting information out there to people in a format that works with their Kindles. And I haven’t told people this in my library. Because how do you tell people, “Well this great device that works really well, and it’s the smoothest check-out process of any device or format that we offer here in the library — but it violates your privacy, it jeopardizes your intellectual freedom, and, you know, it might kinda be against state law, but I’m not really sure.” How do you say that to people? But I think it’s important for us as library staff to figure out a way to say it to people, because it’s our job to stand up for their privacy and their reading rights, even when they don’t know when that they’re in jeopardy.

So all of this to me — very disturbing. And who does care about privacy? I think that’s a question people ask, and it’s a fair question. But we’re supposed to. We’re librarians. We’re supposed to care about privacy. It’s our job.. And there have been cases in the past where you do have — like the North Carolina Department of Revenue demanding that Amazon turn over information about their customers and their purchasing records, Colorado Police attempting to subpoena info from a bookstore about all purchases made by someone. So this kind of stuff does happen. It’s not just like, “Well, possibly, sometime in the future, maybe it’ll happen.” It does happen. And in libraries, we have always stood up for the freedom to read and the right to have intellectual freedom — to learn what you want, to have the ideas that you want. And I really firmly believe that that is in jeopardy right now with this new Kindle lending program.

So think about it if you’re a librarian — if you’re okay with this or not. Because my guess is you didn’t make this as a conscious choice. You just said, “Hey, awesome! We’re getting books that’ll finally work on the Kindle! Thank goodness. Now we don’t have to give that caveat every time we describe how our ebooks work.” And you’re right, it is a nice thing to be able to offer it, but at what cost? And in my opinion, the cost is way, way too high.

So let’s kind of take this back to Overdrive, because I’m mad enough at Amazon. But Overdrive — all right, listen. You play the good guys. And I get that. And you’re a company, and you’re out to make money. You know, I get that too. But I think this good guy image is a bit of a fallacy, particularly in this case. I asked a lot of questions, and you guys did get back to me — you know, kudos for that — and told me more or less, “You can’t really talk about what’s going on with the Kindle program with Amazon because Amazon won’t let you talk about their practices.” So that’s disturbing, that you. signed an agreement where you’re not allowed to talk to us about their practices. Because Amazon won’t talk to us, at all. No one has heard Word One from Amazon, to my knowledge, and I’ve got five or six different communication mechanisms in to them right now, and I’ve heard nothing back. So you’re basically punting us off to a partner that won’t talk to us. And that’s not cool. So just so you know — that is happening.

We’ve, I think, in libraries trusted you to stand up for us And you paint yourselves as a library friend and a library partner. So if you really are a library friend and partner, I firmly believe you should’ve worked a little bit harder to protect our users’ privacy and to protect our users’ right to check books out and not be flooded with advertisements to buy a book from Amazon! Those two things you knew would piss us off. You knew it. And that’s why you didn’t tell us ahead of time that that’s what was going to happen. We had to discover that as it launched. And I don’t appreciate that. I think that’s a bit shady. I know you made a judgment call. You thought, “Well, we can tell them what’s going to happen, and they’re going to get mad. Or we can not tell them what’s going to happen, and we can bank on the fact that most of them aren’t going to notice, and the ones who do are probably not going to say very much or be very loud.” Well guess what? I’m getting fucking loud. This is not acceptable. And I charge every librarian to tell your Overdrive sales rep that this is not acceptable. To contact Amazon and say, “This is not acceptable.” You should’ve told us it was coming, Overdrive. You should’ve warned us. And you didn’t. So, lesson learned, hopefully, for next time.

So look, I’m calling bullshit on Amazon for pretending to be library-friendly. And I’m calling bullshit on Overdrive for not being a true library friend and telling us what was coming down the pike. You’re out to make money — again, I get that — but the way that you’re doing that right now — both companies — is by charging public libraries premium prices for digital content, and you’re jeopardizing through this gross violation of intellectual freedom — you’re jeopardizing the intellectual freedom of every single Kindle owner who chooses to check out library books. And I’m not okay with that. And my guess is most other librarians are not okay with that.

And maybe Amazon and Overdrive — there’s the possibility you don’t understand how grave an issue that is for us, how serious it is. Maybe you really don’t understand what it would be like to live in a police state, where you can get punished for your ideas and the police can use the things that you choose to learn against you. Maybe you really don’t understand how core and critical an issue that is for libraries, and how critical an issue it is for a successful society. maybe you don’t get it.

Okay. But you know what? I do. And tens of thousands of other librarians do, and it’s our job to tell you. So we’re telling you now. This is key. This is core to our professional values. It’s core to our users’ ability to continue to learn without the fear of reprisal. And I ask you to please, please work with us to modify the type of information that Amazon is allowed to collect about our library borrowers, and to work with us to find a solution that works for all three parties. We want to work with you, but you have to involve us in the conversation, and not throw stuff at us without telling us its coming.

So librarians consider this a call to action. Contact your Overdrive sales rep, send a message to Amazon’s Kindle team, either through Twitter — they’re at @AmazonKindle, or contact Amazon customer service )(through chat, through email, or through the phone), and tell them that this kind of practice is not okay for you in your library. Because both companies need to hear it, and they need to hear it from enough of us that they take us seriously.


You can watch the 10-minute video on Sarah’s blog “Librarian in Black”, (or at tinyurl.com/LibraryResponse).

10 Responses to ““Libraries Got Screwed by Amazon and Overdrive” – a transcript”

  1. Bill Jackson Says:

    who was the wise person who made this dark gray text on a light gray page?

  2. Andre Says:

    I sincerely suggest you NOT put your content on the Far Left of the page.

    And speaking of far left….

  3. John d' Malpais Says:

    Sarah, thank you for standing up as a librarian to face down one of the biggest erosions of personal privacy perpetrated within the new digital order. Benjamin Franklin would be proud. Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems told us to, “get over it,” decades ago but somehow we still want to believe people like Mark Zuckerburg at Face__ck when the publish a ‘Privacy Policy’ that these corporations really want to preserve more than just the grand illusion that our habits are private. Your admission that it’s no longer true even within the pubic library system seems tragic, as it’s been perpetrated in a domain that once held patron’s privacy protection as a paramount ethical value. It serves to remind us that ideals require vigilance, and most of us are asleep. Lulled by the soma of consumption. By the way, there’s another insidious detail that I noticed regarding the policies of Overdrive. I use the Seattle Public Library system which has decided to become a co-marketing partner of Barnes and (Ig)Noble Nook, which requires libraries to become de facto bricks and mortar ad sites for this competitor of the Kindle(d) Fire. When I investigated the system used to ‘check out’ digital copies of books through Overdrive, I was informed by one of the branch librarians that patron is required to download and install an application on their personal computer to manage the process of downloading digital book copies. The software requires the use to register with the company and also to provide the library account number. So much for privacy. But it doesn’t stop there because the library is not allowed to have this software installed on the computers at the libraries, themselves. No, any patron using the Nook to download Digital Rights Managed (DRM) encrypted ‘books’ utilizing the paid service as contracted through Overdrive MUST do so from their own computer, with registered software which will collect and record the transaction on the hard drive and tie all this to the same geo-location system that Internet Service Providers make available routinely. In short, Overdrive ‘knows’ who I am, where I am, what I read from the library, my account number, my service provider, my IP address and probably anything else they can collect along the way. Since I agreed the Terms of Service of the software licensing agreement, I have probably given then the right to collect and share (for profit) all of this. There’s no pretense of acting as a ‘good citizen’ regarding your habits, interests or record of library use. It’s completely anathema to anything close to the protection of privacy that libraries WERE used to attempt to enforce. Overdrive’s privacy policies are no different than any other corporation that intends to use datamining techniques in order to capitalize on the access to information they ‘harvest’ in the course of providing a service via the internet. And currently or Congress in complicit in the erosion of anything that average person might equate with privacy. Even the so-called Health Information Privacy & Accountability Act was constructed with holes big enough that the Supreme Court has successfully pushed the corporate reconnaissance apparatus into the privileged area of our health. Now we have book sellers and digital middlemen scrutinizing our library use as well. Kudos to you, Sarah Houghton, for attempting to call attention to that which most of us seem complacently and blissfully ignorant.

  4. Kristin Says:

    Thanks for posting the transcript! The youtube “captions” didn’t work very well.

  5. Wallace Says:

    Much ado about nothing.

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