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I’ve been to Zagreb but, unfortunately, only to spend about an hour in its bus station! I never got to the Velvet Café, which hit the global news recently as a result of becoming the first café in the world to function as a Free Reading Zone (or FREZ). bus-stationYou may have seen mention of it on our Flipboard magazine available online or though the iPad app. This means that patrons are able to access a 100,000 volume digital library, with works in several languages, including Croatian.

A recent post by Mirela Roncevic on ‘No Shelf Required” goes some way to explaining how this is possible, but without revealing the crucial information about how the publishers involved get paid. There’s a hint in, ‘Total Boox asked publishers to take responsibility for their ‘product’—to trust the product itself—because they’d be paid only if people ‘consumed’ it’. And there is mention of sponsorship, so it looks as though it is the Velvet Café that is paying – but this isn’t at all clear.

FREZ is an operation involving the Israeli firm, Total Boox, which works with libraries (mainly in the USA) – and its FAQ explains things more clearly. velvetEssentially, the library pays – but it pays only for what is read, so that if a reader skims through a book and does really ‘read’ it, the library will not be charged; if the reader reads 20% and gets bored, the library will be charged 20% of the total sum. This suggests that the Velvet Café is paying in the same way – and perhaps the price of an espresso will be going up to pay for it!

Roncevic (born in Croatia, by the way) had the idea of pushing out this concept from libraries to other venues, like cafés, so that readers would have the ability to pick up a book anywhere, and non-readers might be sufficiently curious to pick up on the idea. That was partly the consequence of negotiating with the Big 5 publishers in the USA and Roncevic comments: “FREZ does not need or want to be caught in the middle of dysfunctional relationship between ‘Big 5’ publishers and libraries, both of whom have equally contributed to the mess they found themselves in with ebooks”.

The message for libraries, is clear, I think: the world is passing you by – the technology offers capabilities and potentials you can’t compete with, and if it is easier for me to find something to read in a neighbourhood cafe, than it is to deal with the library, that’s where I’ll be. Total Boox does not yet offer access to everything, but publishers are increasingly interested in subscription services and models like FREZ and more and more will be signing up. Lending books – both print and digital – is only part of a public library’s functions, but perhaps it won’t be too long before that role is assumed by others and libraries are left to the more ‘serious’ functions which may actually be more beneficial to society.