At the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference in Dallas, a variety of attendees described how they are attempting to keep their balance, even as the digital revolution shakes the ground beneath their feet. Circumstances are sometimes unsettling but they also present tremendous openings, according to several prominent attendees.
“It seems there’s a short term issue here in that everyone is in a crisis–libraries, publishers, content creators–that’s the problem,” said Vailey Oehlke, the director of the Multnomah County Library in Oregon. “The landscape is completely tenuous,” she said. Libraries have the opportunity to be “prescient,” Oehlke said, and help direct the conversation.
But for ALA itself, this requires departing from its traditional way of doing business.
“The areas in which we need to be active are so broad … [that] it really calls for the resources of the association to work together in ways it never has before,” said Keith Fiels, ALA’s executive director.
ALA has to articulate the principles it should work toward so it can “aggressively” defend library interests, Fiels said. The meetings at the end of this month with Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin publishing executives about ebook lending is part of a “high-profile” approach to let membership know ALA’s leadership is paying attention, he said.
“On a triage basis, publishers who don’t deal with libraries are certainly high on our hit list,” he said, and ALA passed a resolution at the conference which condemned “the discriminatory policies of publishers and distributors which adversely impact access to content by library users.”
But there is also a need, Fiels and others said, for long-term, strategic thinking about the message the organization needs to deploy.
“I can write a brilliant letter once in a while but that doesn’t necessarily represent the best ALA position and that’s where I think we’ve got some weakness,” Fiels said.
Molly Raphael, ALA’s president, said the organization needed to guard against just having a lot of groups working in separate silos.
“We really need to set some good strategic directions for this association about what it is we’re trying to accomplish, what are the issues that we want to make sure we are not overlooking,” she said.
Speaking of academic libraries, Fiels said ALA and libraries do not have a good track record in the area of digital content.
“Can libraries band together and have impact on publishers? I only have three words: El, Se, Vier,” he said, referring to the Anglo-Dutch publishing giant. “But members do want ALA to take a strong stance and that’s something we need to do,” he said.
But the conference highlighted success stories, such as Jo Budler, the state librarian of Kansas who has already taken a strong stance over her library’s right to transfer, at no charge, her consortial collection of ebooks from OverDrive’s platform to 3M’s by exploiting a loophole in her contract. A crowd of about 150 people listened on Saturday afternoon as Budler told the now familiar story.
“When you’re looking at your contracts you can’t just say well I want that to read this way,” Budler said. “It’s got to say what you want it to say.”
Other attendees offered other constructive ideas and reasons to hope. To avoid some of the problems that bedeviled Budler, Eric Hellman, who made a soft launch of his novel Gluejar platform at the conference, said a kind of Consumer Report approach might be something to consider.
“I’m curious whether there are any legal barriers to development of a library friendly certification, a library seal of approval, for licensing or vendors that are doing digital content,” he said.
Robert Miller, the global director of books for the Internet Archive, said the traditional library lending model, based on the first sale and fair use provisions of the Copyright Act, should not lose any of its force, even as competing contractual lending models take hold, and librarians need to have a dialog and educate themselves.
“I think we should be opportunistic, we should be engaging, we should taking advantage of the rights that we do have,” Miller said, noting that universities and libraries already are creating a lot of content that they can take immediate steps on. “We’re going through a stage right now where the water is turbulent …[but] I think we’re all soldiers, or pilgrims, we can go forward and we can do a lot and we should be doing a lot and many people are doing a lot,” he said.
John Voss is a pilgrim of sorts and he is doing a lot. He helped organize the International Linked Open Data in Libraries Archives and Museums (LODLAM) summit in San Francisco this past June, and he also is the strategic partnerships director for historypin.com, which presents opportunities for libraries to join historical collections to the mashup culture.
Voss described himself as “somebody from the Web” and someone who is “a dreamer but also a doer.” He said LODLAM kicked off about a year ago with the idea that “there is a cultural shift, that there are technological tools, and there are legal tools now in place to enable us to share metadata, to share assets in a way that we can break out of silos and use things on the World Wide Web from libraries, archives and museums around the world.”
Voss said applying the concept of linked open data–moving from a Web of documents to a Web of data–to the structured data of libraries “is where we are going.” He noted that the linked open data cloud had a 300 percent growth in 2010, but the amount of data relevant for libraries grew by about 1000 percent.
“We are starting to see real uptake and engagement on this level,” he said, which involves separating metadata from assets (like photographs) and educating institutions on how the metadata can be used.
“You’re not alone. There are a million people like me with a little server rack who are making this thing work on their own,” Voss said. “They want your data, they want to build with it, and it’s a matter of giving them the tools to do it, and part of that certainly is a legal decision,” he said. He recommended the Stanford Linked Data Workshop Technology Plan as a good source.
Jamie LaRue, the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, also has advocated, like Miller of the Internet Archive, that libraries should strive for a model whereby they purchase ebook files from a publisher or author with the library managing digital rights and ensuring one copy per user. But he also saw the potential in content creation.
“One of the real emerging paradigms here is library as publisher. Not just the distributor of content but hosting, managing, creating … [and] the piece we are not talking about here that is driving the epublishing market in a way that no library has addressed yet is self-publishing,” he said.