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The Coming Enshittification of Public Libraries
Global investment vampires have positioned themselves to suck our libraries dry
As a hyperlexic child, I read the way other people breathed — constantly if allowed, desperately if thwarted. As an adult, books are still only slightly less necessary to me than air. I read over a hundred of them every year — many times more books than a permanent member of the precariat like myself could ever afford to buy.
I love libraries because time and again, they have been my literal lifeline. As an abused child and as a financially insecure adult, library access to books has often kept me this side of suicidal levels of despair. The thought of anything threatening public libraries makes me ready to fight someone with my actual teeth.
Never have libraries in the United States been more threatened than they are right now. There are politicians across the country banning thousands of books and making it illegal for minors to access library materials.
But there’s another threat to libraries looming that I haven’t seen anyone else talking about: capitalist enshittification.
“Enshittification” is a great word, in part because it seems self-explanatory: it’s the active process by which a thing that used to be good deteriorates into utter crap. (It’s also great because, you know, <gestures at the entire world> zeitgeist.)
But if you’ve been using the word in a broad sense without being aware of the precise context it was coined to describe, you’re missing out on an important insight.
Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.
That’s from an essay by Cory Doctorow, in which he goes on to use the examples of Amazon and Facebook to demonstrate exactly how corporations have successfully run the enshittification playbook, making themselves heaps of money while screwing over everyone else. If you haven’t read it, please go do that now, because everything I’m going to say next is built on an understanding of that recurring pattern.
Okay, so. If you’re a rapacious corporation looking to make a killing with this particular capitalist bait-and-switch playbook, the first thing you do is identify a middleman position: between buyers and sellers, consumers and advertisers, riders and drivers, readers and writers … basically any two groups who want to find and interact with each other. Then you build a platform — a website, an interface, an app, whatever — and plop it down right there in that chokepoint between those two parties.
Whatever you build must genuinely improve things for the people and organizations on either side of the interaction … if it doesn’t, everyone will just ignore it, and it’s game over, you lose. So you start by building something useful and good. That’s the bait.
Then you work on attracting the people and organizations on both sides of whatever interaction or transaction you’re intermediating. Keep pulling them in — squashing or buying all competitors — until you have a functional monopoly, defined as “when the users of your platform are dependent upon it and have no reasonable alternative”.
At that point you (as the rapacious corporation) have no further reason to give a shit about anybody else. Now it’s time for the switch: start pulling as much money as you can from the parties whose interaction you’ve been facilitating. Most of the time that involves deliberately making your intermediating platform less useful and less good than it already is — for example, by removing an existing feature so that you can charge for it separately.
But so what? Enshittify as much as you want. It’s not like anyone’s got any other options left.
What does this have to do with libraries?
Well, if you use a public library in the United States or Canada, and you ever access their ebooks or audiobooks, you’re almost certainly familiar with the OverDrive platform or its mobile app Libby.
That’s because OverDrive, a private corporation, has a monopoly on managing the availability and distribution of ebooks and audiobooks for government-funded public libraries in North America. (I looked for exact current numbers, but turns out that would require the time and resources of a professional journalist.Best I could do: as of December 2019, OverDrive controlled digital lending for “more than 95% of public libraries in the US and Canada”.)
For about a decade now, OverDrive has provided users with digital library access two ways: through its website (individual library portals hosted on overdrive.com) and its mobile apps (OverDrive and Libby). I’ve always gone the web route myself — at first because it was the only option, before the app was built; later deliberately avoiding the app in order to reduce the amount of surveillance data collected.
Which is why I noticed almost immediately when, at the beginning of May, an important feature disappeared from all OverDrive web portals: the ability to recommend a book to your library’s buyers.
Previously, if you searched for an ebook/audiobook your library did not offer, but which was listed in OverDrive’s extensive database,that book would appear in a separate section at the bottom of your search results with an option to recommend it to your library. Similarly, searching an author name would pull up any titles which your library did not own, or which were scheduled but not yet released, again with option to recommend.
All of that functionality just vanished. Now, searching on a title or author not currently held by your library returns only the error “We couldn’t find any matches for [x].”
The rest of the page is blank.
This has nothing to do with availability — in fact, the search box autocomplete suggestions still reveal which titles and authors are in the distribution database, and therefore available for library acquisition. These titles, both backlist and preorder, are now being actively suppressed by OverDrive.
As an author with many author friends, I know that the publishing industry is structured such that preorders of new titles have an outsized impact on a book’s success, so the active removal of the ability to suggest them to my library was not just frustrating but alarming. I went digging to find out what had happened.
OverDrive really was not interested in making this easy, but eventually I turned up a help page — with the slantwise subject of “How to see title recommendations you’ve made to your library” — which mentions, as an aside, “The title recommendation feature is no longer available, but ... to express interest in titles your library doesn’t offer, you can add a ‘Notify Me’ tag in Libby instead.”
Okay, so at the very least, OverDrive is trying to force people away from the web and into their proprietary app, which probably means they’re trying to gather more surveillance data. Great. (I also learned that, simultaneous with disappearing the recommendation feature from the web portals, they’d withdrawn the OverDrive app, forcing those users to migrate over to the newer Libby app as well.)
Disgruntled, I downloaded Libby and tried to figure out how to “add a ‘Notify Me’ tag”.
Either their UI people are ridiculously bad at their jobs, or OverDrive doesn’t want users using this feature, very possibly because it doesn’t actually work.
To say this process was obfuscated would be underselling its obscurity. First of all, the only way to learn that such a tag even exists is to do a targeted search in Libby’s help, which (assuming you pick the right keywords) will lead you to this page.
Which in turn explains that in order to reveal the “Notify Me” tag option, you must first run a search, and then activate the “deep search” filter tag (!?!) in the search interface.
Because that is intuitive and makes total sense. I also note that the same page says those “Notify Me” tags “express interest in titles to your library” and are “anonymously shared with your saved libraries” ... but then also notes “Not all libraries offer this feature at this time.”
Which could mean any amount of library adoption from 99% to none; no way for any given library’s patrons to know if our suggestions are being received by the acquisitions staff, or falling into a black hole.
Also, once you’ve toggled the “deep search” filter in Libby and “Notify Me” finally appears, the tag only promises to do what it says on the tin: notify you if your library happens to acquire the title. No mention here of any kind of “recommend to library buyers” functionality.
So at this point, I’m like … either their UI people are ridiculously bad at their jobs, or OverDrive doesn’t want users actually using this feature, very possibly because it doesn’t actually work.
What, I wondered, did librarians think of this change to the book recommendation feature? I asked on Mastodon and got a few to weigh in.
None of them were in favor of the switch. One, Alex, called it “categorically worse, to the point that it's not actually useful … I’d rather have us switch completely to our still pretty bad purchase/ILL [Inter-Library Loan] workflow than use this new system.”
“From the library side, this change is a real downgrade,” responded Anne, a public librarian in Michigan. She added that the old system, which connected the recommendations to individual users, allowed libraries to factor in the number of other requests that same user had made. “Balancing those requests was an important part of the selection process,” she said, but the aggregated dump from the “Notify Me” recommendations hides that information.
I also learned that for libraries in a resource-sharing ‘consortium’ — which seems to be most small and mid-sized public libraries, as well as some large ones — the new system is functionally useless. It’s no longer clear which titles were requested by their own patrons, as opposed to the patrons of another library in the same consortium.
In order to get that information — which until May was freely available — each library now has to pay a separate fee for an “Advantage” account. And if they then purchase a book and want to share it with their consortium members, as before? Well, that requires an “Advantage Plus” account (and presumably a higher fee; OverDrive does not make their pricing public).
Anne also said that the backend interface in the former system was easier for libraries to use. “You could have the system generate a cart automatically, of titles your patrons had recommended,” showing the number of those requests per title. The replacement interface, she said, “is much more complicated.” Because patrons have no way of knowing about these backend changes, Anne worried that most would assume that “notify me” worked the same as “recommend to library,” and would end up “annoyed that the library seems to be ignoring their notify me tags.”
Or, because the purpose of the ‘notify me’ tag is so obscured and self-contradictory, the confusion might go the opposite way. Thane, a librarian in Illinois, mentioned that under the new system, “We’re getting way more notifications for titles,” but he suspected that was because “people are liberally using the notify tag without realizing that we’re using it as a signal to order.” He is also frustrated that he can no longer contact patrons directly to let them know the library offers the title on a different platform.
Can’t redirect users to another platform anymore? Gosh, how convenient for OverDrive.
This whole thing smelled like enshittification to me, so I kept digging, this time into OverDrive itself. Right away I saw that in June 2020, OverDrive was sold to global investment firm KKR.
With that sentence, my audience just divided into two types of people:
the ones who (like me, usually) pay no particular attention to the world of “high finance”, don’t recognize the moniker, and so had zero reaction, and
the ones like my friend who happens to be a business journalist at the New York Times, whose reaction as soon as I said “KKR” was the aural equivalent of the Munch scream emoji.
The private equity firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, I quickly learned, was either the inventor of, or an early pioneer in, basically all the Shitty Business Practices: leveraged buyouts, corporate raiding, vulture capitalism. They’ve been at it since the 1970s and they’re still going strong.
Even in the world of investment capital, where evil is arguably banal, KKR is notoriously vile.
KKR was the subject of the famous 1989 book (and subsequent movie) Barbarians at the Gate, in which a pair of investigative journalists from the Wall Street Journal detail what one Times reviewer called the “avarice, malice, and egomania” of KKR’s leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco with “all the suspense of a first-rate thriller”. The ultimate result: KKR’s private equity barons raked in the cash, while thousands of employees were axed and consumer prices of RJR Nabisco products soared.
More recently, KKR teamed up with two other private equity firms to execute a leveraged buyout of Toys ‘R’ Us. They deliberately weighted down the company with a crushing level of debt in order to begin feeding on its profits; they sucked out half a billion dollars as the company staggered along for another dozen years. When Toys ‘R’ Us finally collapsed and died in 2018, the vultures flapped off, unconcerned, leaving 33,000 desperate workers unemployed and without severance.
Even in the world of investment capital, where evil is arguably banal, KKR is notoriously vile. They are the World Champions of Grabbing All The Money And Leaving Everyone Else In The Shit.
“In the popular imagination, private equity is often portrayed as a vulture, or some other scavenger that feasts on the sick and dying,” writes Hannah Levintova in Mother Jones. “But the bulk of the work done by modern-day private equity firms is not to finish off sick companies, but rather to stalk and gut the healthy ones.”
Calling them “vampire capitalists” would be more accurate.Enshittified platforms are not an accidental outcome; they are just one of the inevitable dessicated corpses the vampires leave behind.
And these vampire capitalists currently have a chokehold on the digital catalogs of the public library systems of North America.
OverDrive, of course, does not want you to think they’re the bad guys (or owned and controlled by the bad guys). Their website makes a big deal of their “certified B Corp” status, which is supposed to ensure their “social responsibility”. I do not find this reassuring, for two reasons:
The legal terminology around designated “benefit corporations” is full of vague and ambiguous language that doesn’t have any teeth. B corps agree to pursue a mission other than shareholder profit, but there’s no standard by which they can be required to actually achieve it. Even the strictest state laws require only that benefit corporations consider the impact of their decisions on other stakeholders (like customers and workers), after which they can go off and act as rapaciously as any other corporation.
Any corporation can decide to abandon their B Corp certification without penalty at any point. Just look at Etsy, which loudly trumpeted its B Corp status as a marker of its “commitment to social responsibility” but dropped the designation as soon as it conflicted with shareholder interests. (Predictably, in the five years since, Etsy has been merrily enshittifying away, gouging ever more money from sellers with one hand while making the experience ever more frustrating for buyers with the other hand.)
As one library industry publication warned in advance of the sale to KKR, “This time, the acquisition of OverDrive is a ‘financial investment,’ in which the buyer, usually a private equity firm or other financial sponsor, expects to increase the value of the company over the short term, typically five to seven years.”
We are now three years into that five-to-seven, making it likely that KKR’s timeframe for completing maximum profit extraction is two to four more years. Typically this is accomplished by levying enormous annual “management fees” on the purchased company, while also forcing it (through Board of Director mandates) to make changes to its operations that will result in short-term profit gains regardless of long-term instability. When they believe the short-term gains are maxed out, the investment firm sells off the company again, leaving it with a giant pile of unsustainable debt from the leveraged buyout and often sending it into bankruptcy.
I don’t know what KKR’s exact game plan is, although gouging more money from libraries for a reduced feature-set is clearly part of it. I am certainly suspicious of the fact that they appear to be setting up to gather more user data than ever while passing on less of that data to libraries, their ostensible customers. For example, I can easily imagine OverDrive matching a bunch of the sort of general user data that many apps collect (location, age, message content, purchases, interests, etc.) to book- and reading-specific data from the Libby app and selling it to publishers — especially the deep-pocketed Big Five, who I suspect would leap at any chance to level the playing field between themselves and Amazon, which has its own giant consumer spy network full of proprietary data. (“Publishers: Partner with OverDrive to get catalog exposure and insights”, says the OverDrive website [emphasis added].)
But the one certain thing is that OverDrive, from its monopoly position, has begun the cycle of purposeful enshittification: making their platform worse for both libraries and their patrons with the sole aim of further enriching some of the most rapacious, amoral capitalists on the planet.
I love public libraries not just because of what they’ve done for me personally, but because they are little socialist oases in the capitalist desert hellscape of twenty-first century America.
Every extra dollar that KKR sucks out of libraries is another dollar they don’t have for buying books, or for librarian staffing, or for supporting any of the dozens of other small but important services that public libraries provide their local communities, like free access to computers and the internet. Some libraries that already struggle for funding might be starved out of existence.
The removal of the recommendation feature is the canary in the coal mine.
And if OverDrive goes belly-up at some point in the future, crushed by KKR’s leveraged debt, it’s going to take down access to the digital catalogs of nearly every public library in North America. Between now and then, I expect the user experience to degrade precipitously. The removal of the recommendation feature, I believe, is the canary in the coal mine.
In the short term, I would suggest that library patrons find out whether their library has an alternate book recommendation channel, outside of Libby, and use that instead. (Mine has a web form on the non-OverDrive portion of their website, which to my surprise was acknowledged by an actual human librarian, something that never happened when I was using OverDrive recommendation.)
In the long term … I don’t know. The biggest obstacle I see is neither patrons nor libraries, but publishers. Libraries ultimately have service goals, and some libraries already have a secondary platform (even if OverDrive is the dominant one by far). But corporate publishers have only profit goals, and I imagine OverDrive’s lure of a giant stream of marketing data would continue to be compelling, even if their monopoly was successfully broken.
Alternative platforms already exist: one promising place to start might be the Palace Project and the associated Palace Marketplace, which right now mostly seems to let libraries buy ebooks and audiobooks from indie authors, and access out-of-copyright classics. The company behind it, Lyrasis, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit; that doesn’t mean it’s immune to mismanagement, but it’s a better legal framework than a for-profit B corp. And its board is teeming with actual career librarians, instead of one token librarian and a handful of investors and executives, like OverDrive. The Palace app is designed to combine content from multiple vendors, including OverDrive, which could help with transition. But the Palace Project so far has relationships with less than 5% of US libraries.
I don’t have a neat solution to the fact that OverDrive has a functional monopoly in the space, or that it’s now owned by vampires. All I know to do is point at the dead canary and yell as loud as I can.
I asked my reporter friend how I might go about getting a real journalist to write about it, and she regretfully advised me that she didn’t think it was a big enough story yet to get any professional interest. Once public libraries have actually been devastated by private equity, it’ll be a story.
It will also be too late.
ETA: I’ve compiled some responses and links to related information in the ‘Addenda’ section of my subsequent post.
Researching, composing, and sourcing informative essays like this one require many, many hours of unpaid work. If you appreciate it and can afford to, please help me continue writing with a Ko-fi tip or a paid Substack subscription. Thank you!
… or possibly just a less enshittified, more functional Google.
OverDrive claimed over 43,000 worldwide library subscribers in December 2019, and over 88,000 on its website today. (Usually ‘library’ in this context refers to library systems, rather than individual branches, so that’s my assumption here and elsewhere.) Most of that growth would have to be either outside of North America, or in educational and private libraries, because there are fewer than 10,000 public library systems in the US and Canada combined. But with that kind of growth over three years, and a starting point of 95%, I’d be shocked if their current penetration wasn’t very close to 100% of North American public libraries.
Websites are almost as awful about gathering data and tracking users as apps are; the difference is that with websites you can use special privacy-focused browsers and extensions to block at least most tracking and data collection. You can’t do that with proprietary apps.
I use the Brave browser, which is based on Chromium (and so looks and functions just like Chrome) but with extra privacy and anti-tracking features built in. For a belt-and-suspenders approach, I also have the EFF’s Privacy Badger extension installed.
Extensive but not exhaustive; only books that are in distribution channels utilized by libraries turn up, which many indie / self-pubbed / micro-press titles are not.
She didn’t literally scream; she’s not that histrionic. It’s just that for her, the reaction to the name “KKR” was dramatic.
This felt like an original coinage born of my concern that “vulture” was too inaccurate a metaphor for something that targets, feeds on, and actively destroys healthy organisms, plus the pleasing similarities of consonance between “vulture” and “vampire”. Searching on the phrase, however, shows that “vampire capitalism” seems to have first been used in 2017 by sociologist Paul Kennedy.