Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Nathan Mealey, Michael Rodriguez, and Charlie Barlow. Nathan is Associate University Librarian for Discovery & Access at Wesleyan University. Michael is Collections Strategist at the University of Connecticut Library. Charlie is the Executive Director of the Boston Library Consortium. Nathan and Michael co-chaired the Boston Library Consortium’s Controlled Digital Lending Working Group in 2020–21.

Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) enables libraries to lend the digitized version of a print copy of a work under controlled conditions, such that simultaneous circulation is limited to the number of legally acquired copies of the work. CDL as a mechanism for interlibrary loan (ILL) is a logical extension of libraries’ resource sharing practices, aligning with the sharing of print books that libraries have engaged in for decades. CDL offers transformative opportunities to patrons and libraries, offering greater choice in how to share and use materials (in digital or physical format), and the ability to facilitate access to collections that libraries would otherwise be unable to lend physically.

Versions of CDL have been implemented by the Internet Archive and arguably by HathiTrust, but it has been slow to manifest more widely. Nearly two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than three years since the release of the “White Paper on Controlled Digital Lending of Library Books, CDL remains an idea whose potential is largely unrealized. Libraries have invested significant time and energy in exploring CDL and developing ad hoc local solutions, but find themselves only slightly further along than they were three years ago, constrained above all by the limitations of vended technology solutions.

Explorations of CDL have exposed serious flaws in the library technology market that hinder ingenuity and innovation. Instead of showing the market’s ability to rise to challenges and build solutions to meet emerging needs, CDL reveals that the market largely lacks this capability, especially when it comes to developing technology solutions attainable for most libraries.

To chart a path forward for CDL and to fulfill libraries’ technology needs more broadly, library consortia must step up and collaborate differently to deliver a new approach to library technology. This approach must depend less on vendors and more on library consortia, ensure the sustainability and scalability of open source solutions, and prioritize libraries’ goals and needs for the end product. The Boston Library Consortium is enacting this vision for consortial leadership as it pursues consortial CDL at scale in partnership with Project ReShare.

laptop with symbols representing different digital learning concepts

State of the technology market

Copyright concerns, resource limitations, and other factors have contributed to the hindrance of libraries’ and consortias’ efforts to implement CDL, but the principle limiting factor has been technology. While individual institutions have built ad hoc solutions to meet their own CDL use cases (chiefly course reserves), there has been little progress on the development of technologies that would enable libraries to implement CDL efficiently at scale. What’s more, the prospects for a solution within reach of any library that wants to implement CDL are uncertain. The problem lies in the troubling state of the library technology market, especially consolidation and complacence among vendors and the mixed track record of library-led open source software initiatives.

Consolidation and complacence

While vendor mergers and acquisitions can offer benefits to customers and end users, rampant consolidation in the library technology market has undermined libraries’ long-term interests. The number of vendors providing technology solutions (such as library services platforms, resource sharing platforms, etc.) has dwindled to the point where sometimes only one vendor is providing a viable solution. In other cases, alternative products exist but have been under-resourced and under-developed as vendors became complacent, resting on their incumbent status. Consolidation has also reduced the viability of some of these alternatives, as product development in a consolidated environment is likely to focus on one solution over others.

Due to this mixture of consolidation and complacence, libraries and their technology vendors are increasingly out of sync. This disconnect is demonstrated by premature launches of poorly designed and under-adopted solutions such as OCLC’s Tipasa, pricing expectations that are out of touch with libraries’ financial realities and unreflective of real-world usage, and foot-dragging by vendors in pursuing development directions that are important to customers. Vendors and libraries increasingly operate from a place of incompatible expectations.

In the case of resource sharing, the situation is particularly challenging as a result of Ex Libris’s purchase of the RapidILL solution in 2019. Built and run by Colorado State University Libraries for 20 years, RapidILL has become a cornerstone of resource sharing for more than 500 libraries globally, ensuring cost-effective, quick, and reliable interlibrary lending and borrowing. The solution is affordable and interoperable with ILLiad and other resource sharing solutions.

Yet RapidILL’s future is far from clear. There are growing concerns in the library community that Ex Libris’s Rapido product (a competitor to ILLiad) will gradually subsume RapidILL, risking a situation in which access to RapidILL requires subscribing to Rapido (and possibly even Alma, Ex Libris’s library services platform). Such an eventuality would be a severe blow for libraries that select other resource sharing solutions, due to either cost constraints or functionality preferences. Furthermore, should Ex Libris abandon the ISO-18626 interoperability standard for ILL transactions (and the future NISO controlled digital lending standard) when developing both RapidILL and Rapido, the result would be a closed system in which only Rapido customers were able to leverage RapidILL for resource sharing. This would not only significantly constrain the reach and effectiveness of ILL services across the library sector, but would also severely limit the impact of CDL.

This troubling prospect, over which libraries have limited control, is a direct outcome of the shape the library technology market has taken, and the power it apportions to vendors.

Open source library initiatives

It is easy to blame vendors for the state of library technology, but libraries bear a measure of responsibility as well. For starters, libraries have too readily left the fate of their technological infrastructure in the hands of vendors without taking stronger, more assertive stands for the outcomes they need. Ex Libris acquired RapidILL much as Elsevier acquired Bepress — without sustained pushback from the library community or library-led efforts to create truly viable alternatives. Instead of wielding their spending power to influence vendors, libraries routinely pay vast sums to vendors they are unhappy with, or for solutions that fall short of meeting their needs. Libraries need to demand better from vendors and shift their spending to vendors who meet their expectations.

In parallel, the library community has not yet succeeded in establishing sustainable and scalable models for developing its own solutions. Ranging from integrated library systems such as Koha to repositories such as Islandora, open source systems have taken firm hold in libraries over the past twenty years. In addition, a number of vendors now offer hosting solutions for open source tools that libraries can take advantage of.

However, this prevalence has not led to a suite of open source solutions that effectively scale to all libraries to meet their diverse needs. For example, Islandora’s ability to support scholarly production is limited, while Koha is largely suitable for smaller libraries. There are many reasons for the uneven success of open source software in libraries, but suffice to say that opportunities presented by open source software have not been embraced to the extent needed for scalability and sustainability. While emerging solutions such as FOLIO have gained ground in research libraries through vendor-community partnerships, the forward momentum for such initiatives is too slow and piecemeal to provide a promising beacon for the library community as a whole.

The technology market’s impact on CDL

The failures of the library technology market spring into sharpest relief when it comes to CDL. Since the publication of the CDL white paper in 2018, libraries’ enthusiasm for CDL has greatly outpaced the development of solutions to support it. While CDL aligns logically with libraries’ current resource sharing practices, existing library solutions are not designed to support it. The distinctive functional requirements for CDL (e.g., facilitation of the requesting and supplying of returnable digital loans and applying of appropriate digital rights management to loans) are not offered in existing resource sharing solutions such as ILLiad and Rapido. This functionality gap, coupled with the demand shown by libraries and their patrons throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, ought to have galvanized players in the library technology market to develop solutions to support CDL at scale. So far, this has not happened.

Instead, both leading resource sharing vendors, OCLC and ProQuest’s Ex Libris, have been slow to respond. So far, OCLC has not engaged in the CDL space or incorporated CDL into the roadmap for WorldShare, ILLiad, Tipasa, or its other resource sharing solutions. Ex Libris has engaged in conversations with libraries about CDL, but only recently took any concrete steps — and those they have taken have largely focused on narrow use cases and existing customers, as opposed to the vendor-agnostic interoperable systems approach that is foundational to resource sharing networks. The reasons for hesitation vary by vendor but may boil down to hesitation to commit development resources where they are unsure of immediate large-scale adoption and profitability of their products.

This hesitancy on the part of vendors has left individual libraries to scramble to fill the vacuum, creating ad hoc CDL solutions to meet their immediate institutional needs. While effective in meeting short-term needs, these solutions were able to support only local, intra-library lending and were incapable of scaling to the library community at large or enabling CDL for ILL.

A path forward for CDL 

Against this backdrop, the Boston Library Consortium’s (BLC’s) Controlled Digital Lending Working Group spent the better part of the past year determining how best to move the consortium forward with CDL. From the outset, the Working Group’s vision was focused on the potential for implementing CDL consortially, weaving CDL as a mechanism for ILL into existing resource sharing workflows, believing that it aligned with the consortium’s broader vision for its collective collection, and that as a service it would prove most effective when implemented at this scale. But with no CDL for ILL technologies available, and vendor roadmaps not aligning with the consortium’s vision, the BLC sought to expand the range of available alternatives.

A path forward began to take shape during discussions with Project ReShare, a library-led effort to build a community-controlled alternative to OCLC and Ex Libris resource sharing products. At the time, Project ReShare was in the midst of launching PALCI and ConnectNY as its first consortial implementations and had created an initial roadmap for CDL. The BLC approached ReShare with a set of functional requirements for consortial CDL and a dialogue ensued, with a shared vision emerging for a partnership between the BLC, other engaged consortia, and Project ReShare to work together to develop the technology to support consortial CDL.

Shared vision elements

Two elements of this shared vision stood out to the BLC’s planning team: (1) that the BLC’s vision for CDL could serve as a blueprint for other consortia, and (2) it offered an opportunity to sustain Project ReShare as a library-led technology cooperative for the long term. These two elements would maximize the BLC’s impact, transforming resource sharing for member libraries while empowering other libraries and consortia to implement CDL sustainably at scale.

The BLC’s path toward consortial CDL readily scales to a wide range of libraries as a result of the consortium’s technology structure, wherein member libraries select their own core technologies, and rely on interoperability to collaborate. This stands in contrast to consortia such as the Orbis Cascade Alliance, who rely on shared library services platforms and other shared technologies as a foundation for their collaborations. While constraining in some respects, diverse systems are a strength in the current CDL technology market. The BLC requires a CDL solution wherein the system components will be interoperable and vendor-agnostic, so that all its member libraries can take part. The BLC’s core principle of interoperability between platforms means that a CDL solution that works for the BLC will also work well for any other library or consortia. Interoperability means that CDL can become a vendor-agnostic and platform-agnostic service that can be implemented by any library, irrespective of the technology platform they use for resource sharing.

The existing resource sharing network(s) already relies on interoperable systems. Different platforms may facilitate resource sharing in different ways, with each offering unique functionality to enhance workflows or user experiences. But at their core, they all offer libraries the same thing: the ability to share resources (print and digital) with other libraries. The BLC’s vision (reinforced by the recently published statement on CDL as a mechanism for interlibrary loan) is for CDL to be woven into this interoperability environment, where libraries will not need to implement a specific platform to engage in CDL.

The second element of the BLC’s vision is to contribute to the long-term sustainability of Project ReShare as a library-led cooperative and solution. The BLC is becoming a member of ReShare and making a substantial financial commitment beyond the member fee. As the BLC engaged with vendors and other consortia to map the CDL technology landscape, it became abundantly clear that facilitating the long-term viability of a community-driven resource sharing platform for CDL was critical and required a model that differed from past community efforts. The question became: how can the BLC provide the blueprint and the leadership to effect the envisioned change, when the track record for community-based open-source solutions is mixed?

Crucial role of consortia

The pathway toward sustainability is through the scale that consortia represent. Development of consortial CDL functionalities and interoperability will enable consortia of all stripes to rapidly adopt ReShare as their platform for CDL. Each consortium that joins ReShare brings on board many libraries all at once. Instead of steadily accruing library partners one at a time a la FOLIO, the focus on consortial CDL will facilitate accruing library partners at a much faster clip, growing the base of library partners exponentially faster than would otherwise be feasible. Rapid growth will strengthen ReShare’s financial stability and library-led governance model, expanding the community impacted by and invested in the platform and the model it embodies. Collaborating, consortia can position libraries to repair the market and create solutions that not only meet libraries’ needs but also align with their values and recognize their resource constraints.


Library-led technology development, built around the scale of consortia, offers a means for libraries to take back some measure of ownership of their core technologies and fix the technology market. A community-owned, fully functional platform, which supports both traditional resource sharing and new models such as CDL, can motivate vendors to partner more meaningfully with libraries to improve commercial solutions. This is a significant corrective against the pitfalls of a market dominated by a handful of powerful vendors. Such a market fails to innovate or respond agilely to the changing needs of libraries and their patrons. Library-led technology platforms will help ensure that libraries’ needs, and by extension their patrons’ needs, lie at the heart of library technology development.

Moving forward, the BLC will partner with other library consortia and Project ReShare to create the consortial CDL solution for which so many libraries are waiting. This consortial model will enable libraries to implement CDL at scale and help sustain ReShare as a community and as a resource sharing solution. Over the long term, this model can extend into other areas of library technology that suffer from similar market failures, building a better library technology market. If successful, this consortial model should inspire greater efforts to reshape the library technology marketplace to meet library and patron needs more innovatively, effectively, and equitably.

Nathan Mealey

 Nathan Mealey is Associate University Librarian for Discovery & Access at Wesleyan University. Nathan co-chaired the Boston Library Consortium’s Controlled Digital Lending Working Group in 2020–21.

Michael Rodriguez

Michael Rodriguez is Collections Strategist at the University of Connecticut Library. Michael co-chaired the Boston Library Consortium’s Controlled Digital Lending Working Group in 2020–21.


12 Thoughts on "Guest Post — The Library Technology Market’s Failure to Support Controlled Digital Lending"

Very useful post. However, I think you miss the crux of the vendor role. You seem to think vendors are just “out of touch” with what libraries need and totally miss the market disincentives for them to offer CDL. You keep referring to Ex Libris, for instance, in terms of ILL service, only once very far down do you mention parenthetically that it’s owned by Proquest, and without pointing out the significance of that to your main topic. Proquest happens to be one of the largest vendors of ebook licenses to libraries. There is an enormous conflict of interest there, as Proquest (and its competitors, not to pick on Proquest) would rather sell another license to the borrowing library rather than let an existing customer lend its copy to that library. Library systems need to assume that the for-profit market, and most especially vendors with direct sales interest in ebooks, will never facilitate CDL because it’s against their economic interests. We librarians must work together on open source solutions under our own control. BLC’s initiatives are the right direction and thank you for telling us about them. I just hope that they share what they develop freely rather than trying to “license” it for revenue, just as my own institution did with Islandora (thanks for the mention).

Melissa, thanks for making this very valid point about the tensions between selling ebooks and selling the systems that enable books to be lent electronically. The publishers with which ProQuest partners may see ebook lending of any kind as cutting into their sales (which I have argued is not the case – a fundamental principle of ILL is that borrowing may not substitute for acquisition, and reality reflects this principle). Revenue streams that may co-exist uneasily underscore the importance of having community-driven alternatives to vendor solutions and the market’s tendency to oligopoly.

“a fundamental principle of ILL is that borrowing may not substitute for acquisition,” Oh, boy, that’s a principle that is going to struggle with the practice.

Good point. I do think though that the principle you reference was more intended for journal subscriptions than one-off book purchases, but now that we can purchase many ebooks with much faster access for the patron than ILL can deliver, I can see the argument for applying it to books too.
Our library, like many others, have a practice that could either be considered our compliance with that principle, or possibly just the opposite – evidence that CDL is unwarranted under that principle. We call it our “ILL to purchase” program and it basically goes like this: we get an ILL request from our patron for a book. Our staff looks to see if we can borrow it quickly from regional lending libraries. If not, the request is sent to acquisitions to see if we can affordably (we have a reasonable price threshold) purchase the book either as an ebook or with rush shipping from Amazon.ca and if we find we get can the book much faster to the patron via purchase than ILL, we go that route.
Unfortunately, monograph acquisitions budgets have been utterly decimated over the last couple of decades by the constant above-core-inflation increases in journal/subscription prices so it can be a real hardship for libraries to be asked to accept having to give up “free” ILL options for their patrons. I hope I never see the day we have to tell undergraduates that we no longer fill ILL requests for books for them because we are being forced to purchase the book and can’t afford to do that.

It is my understanding that CDL has not yet been blessed by the courts. Am I mistaken about that? If it has not been supported by judicial decisions, why would a library vendor risk being the target of a copyright law suit? It seems to me this is not a technology problem but simply a matter of business prudence.

Just a reminder that the United States is not the entire world, nor its courts and copyright law having control over what vendors can offer to their customers in other countries. I know you just said “the courts” but whenever I read that kind of generic phrase written by an American, it almost always indicates that the author is thinking only of the US but is considering the US the “invisible default”. I apologize in advance if you had actually verified that CDL has not been “blessed” by courts in any major country.

Exciting call to action and news about BLC / Project ReShare and their intent to support CDL. Technological solutions are needed, and also licensing solutions. Can someone point out suggested license language for eBook vendor support of whole eBook lending / CDL? We would like to include CDL-supportive language in our licenses, but are struggling to find the right wording. Thanks in advance for any pointers!

My understanding of CDL is that it applies to materials owned by the library/institution. Has anyone decided that the often-used licensing language of “perpetual access” equates ownership?

Consortia are a way for libraries to share risk and pool resources, so it makes sense that they will be called on when there isn’t an apparent gain for vendors. Consortia are also more accountable to their supported organizations than vendors in terms of principles, strategy development, and budget creation. Collaborations between consortia are a means to address more significant problems.
Our consortium, the Private Academic Library Network of Indiana, has been using David Lewis’s article, Academic Library Leadership After 2020: The Theory of the Case, to develop the longer-term strategy and commitment to wield more agency as our small libraries are more pressured to both cut costs and meet new, evolving needs. David has often discussed disruption and the need to invest in the new services, the new “jobs” being asked of them. CDL seems to fit squarely in that definition of a new job. Library collaborations are a solid basis to ensuring the investments meet long-term needs, but they require commitment and resources during the build phase.

Back to Joe’s comment and Melissa’s reply, CDL is from a legal perspective a view that a US court might find that with some of the “safeguards” in place and if certain types of works are included/excluded (more factual/ scientific; less popular fiction). There are US court cases on scanning of books including HathiTrust, but nothing on this question of “e-lending”. The Georgia State case on e-coursepacks might be relevant, but the facts are different. In the US, libraries and institutions involved in these cases have relied on fair use, and the position of library organizations has been that fair use is just fine, and there is no need for a statutory review and revision of section 108, which actually does govern library copying. Reliance on fair use is fine, of course, but as Joe notes it is a risk. In most other countries, lending is a right that leads to fees and remuneration to authors, and there are no broad general “fair use” concepts (UK/Canada has “fair dealing” which has some similarities, but most other countries have specific exceptions and not general ones). The AAP set out the position of books publishers in 2019 on CDL which can be found here: https://publishers.org/news/statement-on-flawed-theory-of-controlled-digital-lending/.

Anyway my point is that these matters should be discussed as part of a revision of 108, however repugnant that seems to some…

Mark Seeley

Many publishers, via publisher direct EBA and other sales models, are extending ILL rights with ebooks sold to specific library customers; consortia and otherwise. Missing in this discussion, I think, is the disintermediating effect of publisher-direct digital library sales with minimal or no DRM and the possiblity or fact of an electronic ILL benefit inclusive in the price paid. While publisher direct does not autoamtically mean less DRM and more E-ILL, it does seem to be trending in this direction and publisher-direct ebook sales have grown significantly in the past decade and will, I suspect, keep growing.

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