The leaders of the American Library Association (ALA) will meet at the end of this month with top executives from Macmillan, Simon & Schuster (S&S), and Penguin publishing houses, which all do not allow libraries to circulate their ebooks (in Penguin’s case the prohibition is on new releases only).
“We asked for it and we got both the CEOs of Macmillan and S&S to be at our meetings along with a number of senior staff of these companies,” said Molly Raphael, the president of ALA. “I think they are at least interested in having some kind of dialogue, but I don’t know what it means. We’ll find out more when we go,” she said.
The meetings will occur January 30, 31, and February 1 in New York City, according to Keith Fiels, ALA’s executive director who also will attend.
“I want to assure you that the dialog will begin with us saying ‘you need to deal with libraries and you need to do this as soon as possible,’ then we can have a dialog starting from there,” Fiels said. “I think for the membership, this is what’s keeping people awake at night,” he said.
Alan Inouye, the director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy, and Maureen Sullivan, ALA’s 2012-13 president, will also attend.
The news came at a meeting Saturday evening of ALA’s Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries at the Midwinter Meeting in Dallas. Raphael appointed the group in the fall 2011.
Fiel’s message about the importance of ebook lending to ALA’s membership was reinforced by Sari Feldman, the executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio and a co-chair of the working group.
“As a public librarian whose entire bread and butter is first-run, new, hot stuff, if we lose that we will have to completely reinvent ourselves,” Feldman said.
Fiels, Raphael, and Inouye had previously met in New York this past September with Tom Allen, the president of the Association of American Publishers as well as the library marketing people from many publishers, and the upcoming meetings are an extension of that effort.
“We feel we need to move some dialog with these publishers forward,” Raphael said. “We also want to understand a little bit more from the publishers’ point of view,” she said.
Raphael will also be part of a panel at AAP’s annual meeting in March, along with Jim Neal, the university librarian at Columbia University and Dr. Anthony Marx, the president and CEO of New York Public Library.
Gary Strong, the university librarian at the University of California Los Angeles and a member of the ALA working group, asked Raphael and Fiels about advocacy at ALA conferences, including the present one.
“What would ALA’s reaction be should membership want to initiate protests within the exhibit area against those publishers who are clamping limitations on the use of ebooks in public libraries?” he asked Fiels and Raphael.
Fiels said that he would not rule out a lawsuit or a public campaign in the press against certain publishers, but he said that though ALA controlled the trade show it could not legally organize a commercial boycott.
“There is a potential criminal liability there is what it boils down to,” he said.
Fiels said individual members were free to do what they wanted at the conference, and Andy Woodworth, an adult services librarian at Bordentown Library, NJ, and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker, assembled the “concerned librarian’s” guide to the exhibit hall before the conference began.
“I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for librarians to meet with company representatives to discuss their concerns about current contentious legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Research Works Act as well as ongoing concerns (such as library eBook lending),” Woodworth wrote on his blog January 12.
A few of the 27 working group members at the meeting agreed that attendees should take advantage of the conference to send a message.
“We have many publishers represented here at the conference and we have many opportunities to engage with them,” said Robert Maier, the director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. “If 25 people did that it probably would have an impact,” he said, even if the discussion weren’t with a CEO.
Maier said this should be done “not in attack mode, but in how-do-we-work-together mode,” and Jamie LaRue, the director of the Douglas Country Libraries in Colorado, likened it to a reference interview. LaRue said ALA could turn the results of those interviews into a conference report to share with publishers.
“At least we are asking ‘tell me what your concerns are,’” LaRue said.
Appreciating the position of publishers was something librarians had to work on, according to Pat Schuman, a past ALA president and a co-founder of Neal-Schuman Publishers which was acquired by ALA in December (reportedly for about $7 million).
“I don’t think the [library] field understands publishers. You have to realize you are dealing with a low margin industry and these people are terrified, they don’t know what to do,” Schuman said. “Articulating policies are great but I think we have to also understand where publishers are coming from and develop some models — not just policy, not just message — because just saying you’re bad guys is not going to do it,” she said.
Schuman and others encouraged ALA leadership to look beyond the Big Six publishers, for models and for allies.
“There are many kinds of publishers, like university presses, who are doing all kinds of things that might provide some models,” Schuman said. “It’s not always the large publishers that are out front. … There are many publishers who are already selling ebooks to libraries who might be useful allies,” she said.
There was sentiment among some conference attendees that ALA needed to assert itself more. A snap poll by LJ of 25 conference goers taken in the conference center’s main hall showed 17 respondents favored using the conference to send a message in some way, although many acknowledged it was a complex situation.
“It’s hard to say ‘we’re not going to support you as a publisher’ because then I feel you are taking away from the people you serve,” said Lindsey Levinsohn, who recently became a youth services librarian at Sandusky Library in Ohio and who was formerly a lead library advocate at OverDrive.
The financial support publishers lend the conferences also complicates the issue, according to Kitti Canepi, director of library services at Roseman University of Health Sciences in Henderson, NV, and, therefore, the conference is probably not the best place to push back at publishers.
“What I try to do is tell vendors this is the ebook platform that works for me in my institution and if you don’t have that kind of a platform—which for me is multi-site and unrestricted number of simultaneous users–then I’m not interested so don’t talk to me,” Canepi said. It is more a question of informing publishers what models they need to offer if they want to market to libraries, she said.
Regardless of approach, there was a feeling among some working group members that the group’s two-year mandate may present issues of timeliness, since there are many librarians dealing with these questions on a daily basis who need to know what ALA considers a reasonable approach to the issue.
“This conversation has been going on in ALA now for years, and the thing we can’t afford to have happen is for this drag out and not get resolved,” said Charles Parker, executive director of the Tampa Bay Library Consortium. “We need to come up with an approach that will yield real results in a timely manner,” he said.