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Goof-up allows misuse of S.F. Library's premium online resources 

Wednesday, May 20 2009

Want to learn to speak Spanish? Or Korean? For $259, you could order the Rosetta Stone computer software online and start building a basic vocabulary without changing out of your bathrobe and slippers. Or with a San Francisco Public Library card, you could go online and get the Rosetta Stone software for free.

Getting a library card is easy. Anyone with a California driver's license or ID card can get one; you don't have to live in the city. Until recently, you didn't even have to visit a local library. All you had to do was visit the library's Web site,, and sign up for a free eCard. The card, first issued late last year, gave people access to the library's online resources, including Rosetta Stone, newspaper and magazine archives, and an enormous collection of audiobooks and music.

There was just one problem: Companies that license online materials to the San Francisco library expect their materials to stay mostly in San Francisco. And they make the library sign licensing agreements to protect the market for their products. That way, some people will continue to pay handsomely for language-learning software while others get it for free. The licensing agreements for those resources can be pricey; for instance, the library pays around $20,000 a year for access to the New York Times' historical archive.

The eCard spread quickly around California. A University of San Francisco library blog mentioned the eCard in January and encouraged students, faculty, and staff to get one. Two days later, there was a post on the Sacramento State University library's Web site. Members of a genealogists' discussion group started e-mailing each other, and soon high school teachers in Truckee, Palo Alto, and Fullerton were telling students to jump in on the act.

"In March, we issued over 3,000 eCards, but only 350 of those were to Bay Area residents," says Marcia Schneider, San Francisco Public Library's chief of communications, collections, and adult services.

Schneider says the library began getting "concerned calls" from vendors such as EBSCO Industries, a company that maintains a wide range of media archives, about the spike in unintended usership. By mid-March, the library had stopped issuing the cards and told users they would have to visit a local library and validate their address to continue using the online resources. Schneider says the library hasn't given up on the eCard entirely, but the cards can't violate its licensing contracts.

Did anybody look at those contracts before first rolling out the eCards? "Quite frankly, it probably never crossed anybody's mind, because the outcome wasn't what we had envisioned," Schneider says.

About The Author

Matthew Hirsch


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