May 24, 2018

Ebooks, Maps, and Meebo, Oh My! | ALA Annual 2012

For more coverage from Anaheim, visit News from ALA Annual 2012.

Hot button topics going into this year’s American Library Association (ALA) conference in Anaheim, CA, included what the Georgia State ereserves decision means for the future of fair use, what librarians will use to replace the now-defunct Meebo for virtual reference, and of course, whither ebooks for libraries?

Some 14,746 librarians gathered to discuss these and many other issues (not counting the roughly 5400 exhibitors, up slightly over last year). That’s practically flat compared to last year’s ALA in New Orleans. However, the proportions shifted by about 1000 people from all-conference access to exhibit floor only, no doubt due to continuing tight library budgets.

Of course, last year’s traffic was down by almost a quarter over the preceding year, so that’s not exactly a raging recovery, but Paul Graller, executive director for ALA Conference Services, described the swing in attendance numbers as being driven more by geography than the vagaries of the economy. Easy access to Washington, DC, usually results in significant one-day registrations, which is not the case in the South or on the West Coast, Graller said last year, accurately forecasting that this year’s numbers would be about the same. He predicted they would be “followed by a significant increase in 2013 for the annual conference in Chicago,” which also won’t have to contend with competition from a Public Library Association conference.

ALA attendees throng stairs during fire drill

ALA attendees take the stairs during a fire drill

Traffic on the show floor was busy Friday evening and all day Saturday but light on Sunday, several exhibitors commented. However, you’d never have guessed that from the throngs that poured out of the conference center when the fire alarm went off—perhaps they’d all been in the programs. While some panels, particularly on Friday morning, were sparsely attended, others, such as the YA crossover ALTAFF session and the science fiction panel featuring George R.R. Martin, were SRO. And throughout the conference, aisles bloomed with lines for book signings and galley giveaways.

A moving start

William Kamkwamba, author of memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (HarperCollins, pap., 2009; Dial Young Readers Edition, 2012), spoke at LJ’s Movers & Shakers luncheon, where he told a moving story not included in the book itself. In Malawi, his home, brickmaking is generally considered a male job. But when she needed a house, Kamkwamba’s grandmother started making her own. When asked why, she said, ‘when your clothes are on fire, you don’t wait for someone else to put them out.’ The lesson Kamkwamba took away is not that he doesn’t need help from others, or shouldn’t expect it, but that he’s more likely to get it if he starts working on what he needs first, and then others will notice his efforts.

William Kamkwamba signs his memoir

William Kamkwamba signs his memoir

It’s certainly worked for him. After having to drop out of school when famine hit Malawi and his father could not pay the fees, Kamkwamba self-educated at a local library full of donated books. Using what he learned, he built a windmill out of scavenged parts to provide his family with power, and this achievement brought him global attention in the form of an invitation to speak at a TED conference, the book deal, and finally admission to Dartmouth, where he is beginning his senior year. It also brought him sponsorship to build more windmills to help his neighbors and, now, to install solar panels and projectors in Malawi schools, to help solve a chronic teacher shortage via distance learning.

San Diego's director accepts a sizeable check

San Diego's director accepts a sizable check

Besides giving Kamkwamba’s speech a standing ovation and the comment “you are the epitome of what it means to be a Mover & Shaker,” the packed room of Movers & Shakers from the past decade also oohed and ahhed over the substantial prize money offered for the new LibraryAware Community Award, announced by LJ editor-in-chief Francine Fialkoff and sponsored by LibraryAware, a product of EBSCO’s NoveList. The first place winner will get $10,000. That’s the same amount that the LJ/Gale Library of the Year, San Diego, received at the House of Blues, where director Jose Aponte sang a spiritual to a cheering crowd liberally laced with blue-button–wearing San Diego staff.

The inaugural Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were presented on Sunday to Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman and Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz. Nancy Pearl, chair of the committee, hosted the evening, introducing speakers Molly Raphael, ALA President; and Keith Michael Fiels, executive director. Neither author was on hand—Massie because of a family emergency and Enright because she lives in Ireland—but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the librarians in the packed ballroom, who cheered the speech read on Massie’s behalf by Booklist editor Brad Hooper and the video Enright sent from Dublin, Ireland.

Talking tech

Hot topics on the show floor included Penguin’s decision to dip a toe back in the ebook market via a pilot with New York libraries, something ALA president Molly Raphael praised but one collection development librarian LJ spoke to was skeptical about—not only because “it’s only two libraries” but because of the one-year time limit on each book. Her concern wasn’t principled, it was practical. “Would I have to order all my books on the same day?” she asked, assuming the program is eventually made available to other libraries, “or have a constant trickle of books disappearing from the collection?” She said she was unlikely to add 3M to the library’s roster of ebook intermediaries just for Penguin titles, but would do so if the other Big Six holdouts followed suit.

Friday night’s two-hour taste of the exhibits saw a crowd several librarians deep in front of the Google booth, an unassuming single table where libraries could sign up to add their interiors to Google Indoor Maps. The free service, which debuted last year, has been available for libraries for only a month. Libraries that upload floor plans will see them included in Google Maps for Mobile: a user that clicks on the library building at maximum magnification will see the interior layout. (A library can choose what areas of the interior to include.) Though only two libraries are live so far, another 100 have already signed up.

Of course it’s not just Google and Penguin: technology in every form continued to be such a hot topic as almost to transcend trends. Though the Pew Foundation found that most patrons still don’t know libraries have ebooks, librarians are more focused on them than ever. Heather McCormack, editor of LJ’s Book Review, led a panel that considered how best to acquire (and afford them). Bibliotheca, which launched a Douglas County-inspired ebook solution just before the show (and hired Douglas County’s Monique Sendze and Jordana Vincent to build it), said the solution to library ebook frustrations must be national in scope; several libraries explored demand-driven-acquisition of ebooks, and ALA considered giving some ebook business models a seal of approval. As Eric Hellman, founder of, tweeted under the #ala12 hashtag, “speaker is talking about ‘this whole ebook thing.’ Like it’s a bad storm. But really, it’s climate change.”

Beyond ebooks, librarians discussed how best to compete with Siri and replace the now-defunct Meebo for virtual reference. And at least one-third of the exhibitors offered some kind of technological fix, from automatic sorters and iPad resetting stations to stack maps to open-source APIs to the launch of the new ComicsPlus: Library Edition.

Attendees were also buzzing about OCLC’s surprise take-back of the appointment of Jack Blount, former Dynix executive, as its new president and CEO. The cooperative announced shortly before the show that Jay Jordan would postpone his retirement to stay on but gave no hint as to why they took such an unusual step. And while many rumors circulated on the show floor, including a contract dispute from Blount’s days at Dynix, a threat of ongoing litigation at OCLC that Blount did not want to get involved with, or simply a trial period that didn’t work out, none could be confirmed.

Cleaning house 

ALA plans to cut costs for future conferences for ALA, members, and Gale Cengage (which sponsors the hotel buses) by shortening future annual and midwinter conferences and reducing the number of programs. In addition to cost control, one of the driving forces behind this decision, according to the exhibitors’ roundtable, is to drive more traffic to the show floor, where it has been lower than desired. The efforts, led by Associate Executive Director Mary Ghikas, would mean fewer hotel sites to trek to and was supported by most councilors, though some unit leaders were concerned that they would not be able to hold as many programs as they need.

The council also approved a massive rewrite of the ALA policy manual, consolidating, weeding, and reorganizing it. It reported a number of primarily process-oriented suggestions from groups to improve ALA performance based on its self-assessment survey.

At ALA treasurer Jim Neal’s request, the ALA Council approved a fiscal 2013 budgetary ceiling for ALA and its divisions and units of $65,026,831, despite declining revenues from conferences, dues, and publishing. ALA is currently running on deficit spending; money will be taken from reserves to balance the budget.

Conference revenue, registration, and exhibits were down $857,000 at last count, according to a BARC report, and the cost of acquiring Neal Schuman Publishers added to the deficit, though Neal (no relation) reported earlier that the purchase of Neal-Schuman and the launch of the separate Huron Street Press should make some money for the association soon. Sales of the Resource Description and Access cataloging rules are below expectations. To help balance the budget, there will be no more subsidies for the Association of Specialized & Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA) and Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations (ALTAFF, soon to be renamed United for Libraries). However, despite the belt-tightening, executive director Keith Fiels said more dollars are being allocated to the ALA Washington Office to support efforts to protect library access to econtent.

A proposal to tie ALA dues to the Consumer Price Index, making for much smaller increases every year without members having to vote on each increase was brought to the Social Responsibility Roundtable (SSRT) Council by SRRT Executive Board liaison J. Linda Williams. However, it is only in the first phases of discussion and won’t be voted on until Midwinter at the earliest.

For more coverage from Anaheim, visit News from ALA Annual 2012.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.