Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Ebooks and Libraries Don’t Mix

Libraries certainly are living in interesting times, and last week was no exception. We were also provided with more evidence supporting one of my hypotheses, which is that if you want to get something done, don’t involve the ALA.

For example, top ALA representatives met with several major publishers a couple of weeks ago. The ALA version of the meeting was reported last week. Considering that it was reported in American Libraries and yet there was no puffery or positive spin, I can only assume the meetings didn’t go well.

There was no mention of whether the discussion began with the ALA Executive Director tough talking the publishers by saying, “you need to deal with libraries and you need to do this as soon as possible.” I predicted that opening wouldn’t go well considering that libraries have no bargaining power over publishers.

However, that might have been how they started, which would explain why a week after the meetings ended, Penguin – one of the few big publishers to sell ebooks to libraries at all – ended their contract with Overdrive and now isn’t allowing libraries to lend their ebooks. Way to go, ALA!

A quote from the Penguin press release is priceless: “In these ever changing times, it is vital that we forge relationships with libraries and build a future together.  We care about preserving the value of our authors’ work as well as helping libraries continue to serve their communities. Our ongoing partnership with the ALA is more important than ever, and our recent talks with ALA leadership helped bring everything into focus.”

Apparently what the recent talks helped to bring into focus was that people could read Penguin ebooks without paying for them. “My god,” I can hear the Penguin representatives exclaiming, “do you mean that people can just log into a website and download our ebooks for free? This is the sort of frictionless socialism up with which we shall not put!”

It’s a good thing their partnership with the ALA and libraries is more important than ever, or they’d have tried to remove the titles libraries have already paid for.

The good news is, someone is finally taking my advice about how to fight back. In this post, I suggested that if libraries wanted to do something effective, they “should be putting announcements on their websites saying, ‘You want to check this book out as an ebook? Then contact these publishers and complain about their anti-library lending policies,’ with a list of the offending publishers.”

Well, kudos to the Librarian in Black for taking my advice and starting up just such a campaign by putting up a notice in the library as well as online. It’s about time librarians started listening to the AL. Now we might get somewhere.

The LiB is no delicate flower, and it’s possible other libraries will be too timid to follow. Timid, subservient librarians have been part of the problem all along. Librarians tend to whine about how hard they’re working to get ebooks to patrons, when really they’re not doing anything other than signing a contract with Overdrive.

Trying to get the public involved might take some effort, but it would have to be more effective than the hitherto popular strategy of librarians twiddling their thumbs and hoping for the best.



  1. Re: “Timid, subservient librarians have been part of the problem all along.”

    I see things differently. The key problem (IMO) is that in the 20th century, the world became much more complex and interdependent and libraries remained simple and autonomous. Library structures commensurate with the enormous size and reach of this industry have not emerged to promote strong leadership and reward excellence.

    This has accrued toward many promising individuals entering the profession and becoming acculturated to an institution with low floors and ceilings on performance. As openly discussed in this blog, the entire ecosystem is calibrated this way … the ALA, library schools, vendors that offer crappy products, libraries themselves. In the face of this inertia are library staff who are not timid or subservient, but successfully deliver quality service to their communities within systems with more speed bumps and barriers than windows and doors.

    From within this landscape arise voices of individuals like Jessamyn West, Sarah Houghton, Bobbi Newman, Andy Woodworth, et al who advocate for change. The problem is they are not positioned to effectively do so. They are like lone workers in small auto parts factories, with limited purview and resources, screaming out solutions to remedy calamities within the auto industry. Given the insufficient leadership and power within the library industry, these librarians can only reach out to one another — so we often see small clusters of them screaming, unheard, across the internet.

    The stasis within the library industry presents a strong opportunity for a reset … a re-imagining, a renaissance — built on the strong assets and values of the existing infrastructure. Libraries are good and necessary institutions. We need to scrape off some barnacles (that develop in every organization) and reimagine them for this century where:
    * patrons are more educated, mobile and have greater resources;
    * established authority has been displaced and new means of establishing it have not yet emerged;
    * EVERYTHING changes at a more rapid pace.

    eBooks are a small part of the library dilemma. IMO, without an institutional re-orientation, whether or not publishers make them available won’t affect the fate of libraries all that much.

    • Jean, while I may be more worried about how eBooks will change publishing and how this will in turn affect libraries, I’m always encouraged by your posts. As long as we have thoughtful, articulate people like you in our field, we have some hope.

    • This will definitely be the least humble thing I will ever write, but when starting my first library job, at a public library, I was one of those people–driven to succeed, hard working, etc. Over the course of this job, and my current job (academic library), I am slowly having the will to live (well, not really live, but more accurately the will to succeed) beaten out of me by clueless supervisors, inane policies and regulations, co-workers whose incompetence borders on the criminal, laughable “wages,” etc. etc. etc. So I tend to agree with your assessment of librarians (well, at least some of them) doing the best they can under the terrible glass ceilings that seem to characterize this profession.

    • MS, sadly many of the clueless supervisors and incompetent colleagues you see started out as you did. They were pulled down into the quicksand and suffocated. This is a huge institutional problem the community pretends isn’t there, thereby compounding it.

    • waffling about my career says:

      Jean, You nailed it, and you speak to a dilemma facing those of who do see the big issues, want to reform libraries to better benefit our patrons, but also realize that as “lone workers in small auto parts factories” we are highly unlikely to get the ball rolling. Librarians need to be organized to seek reform accross organizational lines, but we won’t come together unless or until we’re faced with an exestential threat that a critical mass can see and have the will to see. Unfortunately, a lot of librarians got into this line of work precisely because revolution and/or creativity wasn’t our thing.

      Do we choose to stagnate or choose to transform? And even if we decide to transform, do we have the neccessary creativity, will, resources, value proposition and a external climate that will allow us to redefine the profession? All the transformational leadership in the world wouldn’t save the Buggy Whip Industry. I don’t think librarians are the 21st century equivalent, but I’m less convinced of that than I was a year or two ago.

      The answer to that question means a lot to me, because I’m not particularly interested in lingering in a dying profession. The answer will probably become clear in the next 3-5 years. So in the meantime I pursue side projects that I can grow into escape routes, all the while doing everything possible in my corner of libraryland to reduce the chances that I’ll need to use them.

    • Hi Waffling – I have a vision for a library renaissance that is vivid and rich. I’m happy to share it with you, or bandy about anything else on your mind, if you’d like to contact me. I correspond with library folk from across the U.S. and Canada and would be happy to hear from you too.


  2. Soren Faust says:

    Yes, and there are more things that don’t go hand in hand with e-books. See if you’re interested.

  3. Anamosa Librarian says:

    Maybe libraries and ebooks mix, and maybe they don’t. But there won’t really be any way to tell unless we try. I’ve got a petition going on Please sign and pass it on! If enough people speak up, publishers will have to sit down at the table, at least.

  4. Public Servant says:

    Do you really think there is a “library industry”? I don’t know about you, but in my job as a reference librarian in a public library, my ultimate bosses are the elected town officials also known as the board of trustees. I wish I worked in a company where initiative and out-of-the-box thinking was valued. I wish my graduate education, work experience, abilities, talents and passion might afford me the opportunity to work my way up to positions of increasing responsibility and decision-making power. I have been in this “field” for over 10 years, and I still cannot place an announcement on our bulletin board without prior approval.

    • Overworked Librarian says:

      @Public Servant
      I understand your frustration. I am a Outreach Librarian in a public library. I can put anything on our bulletin board so I don’t relate in that regard but I agree that the ‘bosses’ of the public library are the trustees which is so backwards. For this reason I am looking to work in academic libraries because at least the people in charge are more educated. Any citizen of the area ‘elected’ to the board of trustees can have power over a library, regardless of their experience or level of common sense! I am in a library where the board members were elected by default because no one else ran against them. They didn’t even have enough people run so they have always been one member short.

      These board members are canterkerous and self seeking. They spend money on everything except new books. They have no experience and no interest in using the library.

  5. Overworked Librarian says:

    Sorry I got so riled up, I forgot to respond to this post! This e-books debate seems to have gotten out of hand. Publishers don’t need libraries. I hate to say it, but nonprofit is akin to charity and the publishers are in business to make money. Libraries pay for the materials we lend out but every check-out is money that the publisher and author will lose out on; unless the item is so awesome that the patron must own their very own copy of it.

    Digital items are vulnerable because people can easily find a way to copy the item and now they ‘own’ it for all time not just the lending period.

    Librarians need to be realistic and stop acting like we don’t know people can rip our music, movies and mp3 audio books easily.

    Now one might argue that the underprivileged people we serve wouldn’t buy the items because they cannot afford them, but most consumers are poor… (the 98% poor versus the 2% rich). Rich people (including publishers) did not become rich by giving things away for free and they are not going to do it just because we beg them to.

    Gosh, I sound so pessimistic.

  6. One thing that publishers and (big name) authors seem to have forgotten is that not every book that goes out the door of a library is a lost sale. Many, I might even dare say most, of what patrons borrow are books they otherwise wouldn’t have sampled. The fact that it costs them nothing to try the book encourages them to take risks with new authors. This is the strategy behind free samples, a strategy that other authors have used to great advantage, developing a fan base that is then willing to pay for their work.

    In their greed to squeeze every last penny out of the market, publishers and (big name) authors are shooting themselves in the foot.

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