Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A meditation on the library, and a question for readers

I noticed a few days back that my wife and I had neglected to return 'The Unincorporated Woman' to the library on time---it being overdue by a couple of days.  Now, having the 'middle class honor' that Half Sigma likes to write vaguely disparagingly of, we of course hastened to return it and pay the few pennies in library fines.

I thought a bit during this about library fines and the possibilities that exist there.  It strikes me that library fines are defined by two main parameters---how long you get to keep the book without any fine and the fine per unit time.  Sometimes they also have a fine cap and sometimes the fine per unit time is nonlinear.

What I wonder about it this:  Are there any explicit legal limits on what values these parameters can take?

For instance, imagine that the first parameter was effectively zero.  Imagine that the 2nd parameter was dependent on the type and 'newness' of a book---being, say $1/day for a new release of something that actually typically sells quite a few copies.
All of the sudden, with tweaks to just a couple of parameters, you've created an entirely new business model---a model I've never seen in practice.  It's essentially like a video rental store, except with books.  Surely there's a reason this is illegal :-)  I know there are a lot of people like myself that view the main utility in books as devouring them and have considerably less use for owning them long term.  I'd love to be able to effectively rent a new book for 3 days for $3 or so, read it, and return it so the next person in the queue could do the same.  It also seems that if you could obtain books near their wholesale or sale price, there'd be plenty of profit margin in the business. 
So why is it that this business model essentially doesn't exist?  Certainly it would be profoundly disruptive, but doesn't there exist a doctrine of the first sale?
Seems to me such an establishment could also do a groupon like thing where they'd purchase a copy of a book if N people agreed to check it out. So where is the hidden barrier to entry?
Of course, like most of my offerings, this is yours to use in any way you like---even claiming it is your original idea and gaining social status or fantastic amounts of money.


TJIC said...

> Surely there's a reason this is illegal :-)

Speaking as someone who was in court as recently as ... this morning ... on a First Sale Doctrine case, let me say that it's NOT illegal to rent books, video games, etc.

There is a carve out: it is illegal to rent audio material, and software which "as a normal mode of operation" installs itself on a target computer...but other software (such as games) can be legally rented (as you mention).

Jehu said...

So what's the barrier to entry? Surely there is one, or we'd see book rental kiosks in places like Costco.

Anonymous said...

It's actually starting:

Jehu said...

Very happy to hear it. Hopefully it'll catch on, as it has the potential to be a profoundly disruptive technology.

Hail said...

The joy of the library, to me, is in walking down the aisles, finding a long-forgotten book on a dusty shelf about a fascinating topic, taking it out, bringing it to the table, opening it up, and starting to absorb the knowledge in it. It is an intellectual adventure, I've always felt.

There is really no market for intellectual adventure.

A profit-based library, or book-rental store, which orders books based on demand, would have to cater to what people want -- even more than libraries do now. Imagine endless shelves of trash romance novels for the women. *Shudder*. The likes of "Why Liberals are Dumb and Won't Admit It" by Ann Coulter winning out over Emerson and Thoreau, to say nothing of arcane histories written 80 years ago.

There are people like me, who are interested in books that are not necessarily popular. In theory, a small group of us could put our names on a list to compel this for-profit library to order them. There are two principal problems: (1) I don't know what those books are, "yet". Some of the most significant books I've ever read, I found by chance at a library in the manner above-described. (2) Putting our names on a list would create a record of who is interested in what. Libraries do this anyway, I guess, for what you check out, but not for what you peruse in the library itself. With the for-profit library model, which buys books based on consumer demand, "the record" is almost inherent. Something like your politics could easily stand out. (Am I remembering it right that the U.S. govt decreed that library records were now fair-game for Federal investigations?).

Jehu said...

Such a business model wouldn't really compete much with conventional libraries---where it would be profoundly disruptive would be with existing bookstores, Amazon, and the like. I understand what you speak of---the hunting expedition for something interesting, not knowing what you might find. Therefore I have a boon for you today.

Project Gutenberg Australia. Australia apparently has shorter copyright terms than does much of the rest of the Anglosphere. It has some really good stuff just awaiting your perusual and download. Lots of stuff that is profoundly reactionary without being 'about' reaction, written in the 1930s and before. Google books has quite a bit too, and between them they have a far greater number of dusty tomes than does any local library.

Hail said...

Well, Jehu, if only now I could get past my distaste for reading on a screen. It rather spoils the fun!

Jehu said...

My wife asked for, and received a Nook for her birthday this year. The UI on it is truly nice. Perhaps you could consider one?