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.