November 24, 2014

Too Many Ebook Cooks: Ineffectual Committees Aren’t Fast Enough To Ensure Robust Access | Editorial

how many committees does it take to come up with an ebook strategy for public libraries? It seems you can’t have too many. I won’t go into a litany of American Library Association [ALA] working groups, except to mention the unfortunately named EQUAAC (Equitable Access to Electronic Content). The disparate committees and initiatives haven’t made inroads with the holdouts among the Big Six publishers that still refuse to allow ebook lending of their titles in libraries. They haven’t had much impact on public awareness of ebooks in libraries or the issues surrounding them, either. That’s why library leaders like Columbus’s Patrick Losinski says in an article at TheDigitalShift.com (and in the forthcoming September 1 LJ print) that “it’s time for…tough love for public library leaders”. “We haven’t been as visionary, vigilant, and assertive as we need to be when it comes to mapping our future in the ebook world.” Stop reacting to business models being propagated by commercial interests, he says. Start advocating for the public’s interests and preparing for the “tsunami” headed toward libraries in the digital revolution.

Losinski isn’t acting alone but elbow to elbow with other like-minded leaders (he and Martín Gómez, former director of Los Angeles Public Library, now vice dean of libraries at the University of Southern California, wrote a white paper on this in March). Their imperatives include public education, lobbying, research, and uniting various associations’ initiatives under one temporary umbrella organization. As Gómez told me, public libraries don’t have a powerful organization like the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) on the academic side. “What ARL is to academic libraries, ULC [Urban Libraries Council] and PLA [Public Library Association] are not. And ALA is an individual members’ organization.”

On a more individual level, Douglas County Libraries director Jamie LaRue takes a similar tack, telling librarians to stop complaining about ebooks and publishers and instead do something. His article’s title “All Hat, No Cattle” (p. 32) roughly translates to “all talk, no action,” and LaRue, as you may well know, is already doing something. He pioneered a model in Douglas County that other libraries and consortia like California-based Califa (220 multitype library systems) have emulated. That model included buying an Adobe content server to host ebooks and making deals with publishers, many of them independents, to purchase titles outright, not license them.

When LaRue started, his approach to forge a path beyond the Big Six publishers was regarded skeptically by some. He doesn’t look so naïve now, having made inroads not only with smaller, independent publishers but with some larger ones as well. In his article he lays out an action plan pressing librarians to be more proactive in providing access to content, including self-publishing.

I’ve always thought LaRue was too quick to put traditional publishing, and print, out to pasture. Even as self-publishing proliferates, plenty of would-be 20-something (and teen) authors are clamoring to get contracts with “traditional” publishers. They’re not all going the Smashwords route. Some of the suggestions LaRue makes, however, have potential even for the Big Six. His ideas include ones that already have some currency, like patron-driven acquisition (more prevalent in academia), a patron buy button (in place in many public libraries), and a used book market for ebooks that would give publishers a new revenue stream (a percentage of sales) and would spread literacy.

LaRue’s call to action focuses on experimentation. It overlaps with Losinski and company’s in several ways, but most significantly in its understanding of what’s at stake: the public’s access. As Losinski writes, “None of us can afford to continue the pattern that has emerged over the past several years of robust conversations about ebooks at national conferences, followed by a return to our local organizations and the ensuing lack of a sustained effort….” Ineffectual committees don’t cut it anymore. We must work harder to protect readers now and into the future.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff (ffialkoff@gmail.com) spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.

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Comments

  1. Patrick Losinski’s piece is terrific and describes the library / popular e-book issue as the existential issue that it is. And the recent Pew report that found that 12% of readers of e-books borrowed one from a library last year and that the the majority of Americans do even know this service is provided by their library puts it in critical perspective. Libraries are facing a critical problem and the public doesn’t even know.

    There is clearly a need for a coordinated public outreach effort the likes of which the library community has never seen or even imagined. To me, Pat’s statement underlines the need for a coordinated, national effort to mobilize all of our assets around the goal of ensuring that Americans have access to published content through their libraries.

    With a lot of respect and appreciation for the Editor in Chief – I think that ALA has moved past the point of being incapacitated by committee. It took ALA a while, but the e-book issue now, in my opinion, has been taken on seriously by ALA. ALA leadership has been actively engaged and staff at OITP and in the Chicago office have been tasked with working this issue and we are seeing the results.

    I was part of a group that posted “An Open Letter to E-Book Creators and Sellers from Library Customers” in May of 2000 and like many I anguished as I watched the committee process stumble forward. I served on an OITP Ebook Task Force that worked in parallel with the EQUAAC group (the joke was when ALA gets serious about something they don’t just appoint a committee, they appoint 2!) And I serve on the current Digital Content Working Group.

    ALA now is focused and has great people and resources in place and I am convinced that we can take up Patrick’s call to action and plan and conduct a coordinated, national campaign, the likes of which we have never before imagined. Our future depends on it.

  2. The problem is not a lack of “sustained effort” by libraries. It is a lack of collective effort. Publishers are not evil. They are businesses, with leaders who are obligated to act in the best financial interest of their shareholders. In other words, they follow the money. If libraries would organize themselves into book-purchasing pools — for all books, not just ebooks — they would become much more effective in negotiating with publishers. If anyone at ALA is advocating a collective approach by libraries, I haven’t heard about it. But as shown in the article elsewhere in this issue (“Califa, DCL, Open Library Make Commitments to Smashwords’ Library Direct”), some leaders of the profession — including Jamie LaRue — do seem to think collective purchasing is part of the solution.