From Washington to Washington: Connecting President Obama’s Inaugural Speech and Library Ebook Access

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For a public policy wonk working within the library community, this is a week of extraordinary bookends. It begins with the inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President, with the added symbolism of the federal holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The week will end with the opening of the 2013 Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association, ALA’s smaller conference (with still well over 10,000 expected participants). In some respects, this week’s trip from Washington (D.C.) to Washington (Seattle) will be a jarring change in perspective, though it should not be.

Now with over two decades of involvement with national public policy, I can be a bit cynical at times. So listening to President Obama’s speech yesterday, my auto-pilot reaction was, ‘Nothing much new here.’ Whether that’s true or not, there was much in principle for the library community:

“We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.” [emphasis mine]

Sounds like the mission statement of libraries. Places where students come to study and work on term papers. Centers where senior citizens come to find health information online. Institutions where people come learn how to write resumes, look for jobs, and improve their skills. Places that advance literacy—old-fashioned and digital—in myriad ways from recreational reading to formal classes. Places where people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but they must do the pulling; what better description for libraries than “centers of opportunity?”

OK, that’s all fine and lofty, but what does it actually mean and what do we actually do?

ALA conferences tend to focus on the minutiae of library-land. What new technologies, content, and services should be considered for a library? How can we improve the management of libraries? Who are the new hot authors I should know about? Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. The center of gravity of the national conference for any profession is advancement of the practice.

But this is the time for less minutiae and more vision (and thinking). Indeed there are big questions on the national library table. Should libraries place serious emphasis on the collection and promotion of ebooks from self-published authors? Should libraries place more emphasis on smaller publishers overall? And in doing both, there would implicitly be less emphasis on ebooks from the largest publishers. Such a change in strategy now is possible, at least in principle, because technology could enable access to all ebooks (e.g., via patron driven acquisition), whereas any single library only can purchase a small percentage of the available print titles. Should libraries (perhaps through a non-profit library institution) become their own ebook distributors?

There are even bigger questions. As other library roles and services—such as promoting digital literacy and creativity via maker and other creation spaces—increase in prominence, what is the role of lending (e)books in libraries in the years and decades ahead? Or thinking about print books as self-contained information objects, ebooks have an inherently interconnected property, propelled by their underlying digital information and ubiquitous networking. What will an “ebook” be in ten or twenty years? Will it even be logical to “lend” an “ebook” if it becomes a manifestly un-self-contained information un-object?

Sadly, I (and the library community) have many more questions than answers. But in 2013, I, and some of my colleagues, will devote increasing effort to this vision challenge. And now back to the other bookend—Seattle. If you are at this week’s ALA meeting, we invite you to drop in at a program of ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG) at which we will explore some of these questions. This program, which features George Coe of Baker & Taylor and Matt Tempelis of 3M in addition to DCWG leadership, begins at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday in rooms 602-3 of the convention center.

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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