Random penguins: more than the sum of the parts for libraries?

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The library community has enjoyed a productive and respectful relationship with Random House and Penguin for many decades, notwithstanding the conflict over ebooks of late. They are suppliers and we are customers, of course, but they also believe in core library values such as public access to information for all—though within the context that Random House and Penguin are for-profit businesses and have certain financial imperatives as one would expect.

Along with our colleagues in the publishing industry, we librarians wonder about the policies and practices of the merged company. Above all, we intensely hope that Random Penguins (and I mean that in the most kindly of ways) will retain this social identity—that publishing is a critical industry for the country—publishers do not produce widgets. The policies and practices of publishers shape the intellectual discourse of the nation, influence how or whether our less-fortunate neighbors will have access to information, and are instrumental in how young people (and lifelong-learning adults) are educated and learn.

But there is a more direct pragmatic suggestion as well. Random House makes its ebooks available to libraries through a purchase (or perpetual license) model. Prices are pretty high, but access is indefinite. Penguin has a library pilot underway with much lower prices, but access is accorded for only one year—then poof.

I hope that the two companies merged into one can mean two licensing regimes merged into one better licensing regime. That is, how about the retention of both options? After all, each company already determined that its respective licensing arrangement makes business sense.

Thus, libraries would be able to obtain titles permanently (the Random House model), for one year (the Penguin model), or both ways. This flexibility would provide libraries with more options to serve patrons… and provide libraries with more opportunities to spend money with these publishers. Some libraries want perpetual access and its corresponding certainty and have larger budgets and will spring for the $84 an e-copy. Other libraries can’t touch that pricing, but can entertain $9 for a year’s license.

This menu concept is at the core of our thinking about library ebook licensing models. The digital form of books and networking enable many more possibilities than are feasible with print books. Let’s work towards taking more advantage of the possibilities. Admittedly, the menu concept for business licenses is a small step in that direction, but it is a step.

Finally, I know that the merger brings considerable uncertainty for the people of Random House and Penguin. I met many fine folks at these companies during the past couple of years. Words are not much, but I fervently hope the best for them.

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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