E-book Dispatches from 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting

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With the conclusion of the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting earlier this week, Seattle has returned to its normal contingent of librarians. (As an aside, Seattle is a special place for  librarians, as it is the home of the iconic Seattle Public Library building and the former Gates Library Foundation, now expanded to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

#alamw13

These ALA conferences are always hectic, full of committee meetings, public sessions, and small group meetings, but in the past year or so, the conferences have been especially crazy for me (thank you publishers!).

So what happened that may be of interest to Digital Book World readers? Well, I am pleased to have a distinguished guest provide some perspectives from Seattle. Sari Feldman, Executive Director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library and Co-chair of ALA’s Digital Content & Libraries Working Group (DCWG), provides the following report.

Ruminations from Sari Feldman

Sari FeldmanTo nobody’s surprise, library access to e-books was a key topic in Seattle. For the DCWG, it came up in five different contexts:

  1. Two public programs that featured panelists Linda Crowe and Heather Teysko (Califa Library Group), George Coe (Baker & Taylor), Matt Tempelis (3M), Jamie LaRue (Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries), Robert Wolven (Columbia University), Alan S. Inouye (ALA), and me.
  2. Multiple business meetings of the DCWG and its subgroups.
  3. ALA involvement in the Pew Internet Project surveys on libraries and digital content, OCLC Big Shift Initiative, and the ReadersFirst Initiative, all of which had major meetings or public programs.
  4. Small group meetings with vendors and experts.
  5. Informal conversations with conference attendees (which numbered over 10,000).

The Big Six are Still Big (Even If Five or Four)

The ability to provide library patrons with Big Six e-titles remains a high priority. We have reason to be somewhat optimistic in 2013, based both on statements from our panelists, as well as our discussions with publishers and distributors in small group meetings, and the Macmillan announcement from last week. That said, while we anticipate some progress overall, the offered pricing may well continue to be unfavorable, and with only one option per publisher (whether perpetual license, 26 circulations, one year, or two years). As libraries have varied needs and circumstances, we would like several options per publisher and, preferably, with the options somewhat comparable across publishers. ALA anticipates that continued, or stepped up, advocacy will be necessary in 2013.

Frustrated Librarians Also Looking for Alternatives

We talked with many librarians from every part of the country, and they are frustrated with the pace of change and with the specific offerings as suggested above. Hence, there is growing interest in e-titles from mid-sized and small publishers and self-published works. How can we establish an improved infrastructure to enable easier library access to these titles? Thus, there is growing interest in the “Douglas County Model” and Califa and how these ideas and systems may be further disseminated and evolved in the library community.

The library as publisher also is receiving increased interest. It is not a new idea; for example, take a look at the work of the Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library. But currently, it is a niche phenomenon—should ALA aggressively promote ways libraries may take on this role across the country?

It is true that Big Six ebook terms are motivating libraries to consider alternatives. But libraries should consider these alternatives anyway because the digital context enables many new possibilities to improve patron services, and libraries should be re-evaluating their core assumptions about how to work. Naturally, libraries will end up in different places based on their local situations—we only ask that they ask what’s now (and can be) possible and what’s best for them now and for the years ahead.

Other Terms of Engagement

In 2012, ALA focused on the two most fundamental issues—the availability of e-books to libraries and, if available, at what price? But we have understood that ALA must broaden its focus to include other issues. Thus, on the eve of the conference, the DCWG released “Ebook Business Models: A Scorecard for Public Libraries,” a guide that helps librarians consider and evaluate the breadth of important characteristics, not just basic availability and pricing.

A number of library community leaders stated that preservation and access for people with disabilities should receive more attention. An important role of libraries in society is stewardship of the cultural record for the long term. Current business models do not enable us to fulfill this role. We have already begun work on the accessibility issue, but will give it greater prominence in the coming months. In addition, the DCWG will continue our work focused on the school library sector and engaging authors, and spool up discussions on privacy concerns.

The DCWG also will continue its efforts to increase the awareness and understanding of the libraries’ value in bringing new authors and titles to readers who otherwise might not know of them. Such discoverability—often in partnership with publishers—for print books has been a key part of libraries and the ecosystem of books and publishing for decades—through multiple mechanisms such as book displays in the library, support for book groups, hosting of author talks, running childrens’ storytelling activities or just librarians making recommendations to their patrons. We are in the early stages of considering what libraries can do to bring authors and readers together in the e-book era, but we are optimistic of the prospects, leveraging the nearly 17,000 public libraries in the United States (and well over 100,000 libraries of all types).

Some Last Thoughts

The DCWG will continue to explore larger ideas. The notion that the e-book solution is to replicate the characteristics of the print book ecosystem (and the print book as a static information object) to the maximum extent may be the only practical approach for the short run—and libraries will continue to participate in these efforts. However, we can surely do better than that in the long run.

Alan S. Inouye

About Alan S. Inouye

Alan S. Inouye is director of the Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) of the American Library Association (ALA), based in Washington, D.C. Since 2011, he also serves as the program manager of ALA’s Digital Content & Libraries Initiative. Prior to ALA, Alan was the coordinator of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President for three years. Earlier, Alan served as a study director at the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academy of Sciences for seven years. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

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2 thoughts on “E-book Dispatches from 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting

  1. The ALA might learn a lesson from how Ronald Reagan handled the problem of residuals when he was head of the Screen Actors Guild. Much like book contracts made a decade or more ago have no provision for digital books, movie studio contracts from the 1930s and 1940s made with actors had no provision of money earned when movies were played on TV in the 1950s.

    Most of the studios were adamant that they wouldn’t pay actors for this added income and the actors were equally adamant they they deserves a share, so a strike loomed. Reagan, however, noticed that one large studio head was open to making a deal. If he did and the other studios didn’t, his studio would make out quite well with the other studios on strike. The SAG and that studio made a deal, forcing the others to go along.

    Librarians might do well to ignore publishers who won’t make the sort of deal they feel is appropriate and go with publishers who do, perhaps though agencies (i.e. Smashwords) that serve brokers between smaller authors or publishers and libraries. Then set up some sort of system that essentially says, \Yes, you can’t get this Big Name Author because his publisher sets unreasonable conditions, but here are some new authors who write similar stories. Maybe you will find them interesting.\ Nothing would scare the Big Publishers of Big Name Authors more than that.

    Small and mid-sized libraries also need a better scheme than the buy-to-lend scheme that’s currently dominant. They’ll never be able to afford a large collection if they have to buy each one. Much better for them would be a system that makes a large collection of books available for free and instead charges a per-checkout fee.

    It’d be a win-win situation for everyone. Publishers would not only maximize their income by giving their backlist titles the widest possible exposure, they’d replace blips of sales with a steady cash flow. Even small libraries would have large collections and their clients would be more likely to find a particular ebook available. Libraries would also save the cost of getting a printed copy via interlibrary loan.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments

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