Digital Working Group Pushes for Expanded Ebook Access

A new member initiative will address the crucial issues surrounding libraries and digital content

May 24, 2012


If out of frustration comes new ideas, creativity, and entrepreneurship, then ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG) is due its lightning-bolt moment. Following the 2012 ALA Midwinter Meeting in January, there were optimistic signs for future dialogue with publishers over the crucial issue of library access to ebooks, and the newly formed DCWG was ready and willing to deliver meaningful direction to the Association and its members.

But as we returned from meetings in our roles as DCWG cochairs—Wolven meeting with publishers in New York City to synthesize results from his participation in the ALA delegation meetings, and Feldman at the Library Partnership Conference 2012 in Stuttgart, Germany—a leading publisher closed the door on library access. In February Penguin, which had been offering only backlist ebook titles for library lending since November 2011, terminated its contract with OverDrive, the library digital-content distributor. This was not good news. Not long after, Random House—a consistent supporter of public library access to ebooks—increased its prices radically, making the cost disproportionately high and affecting the ability of libraries to purchase content. But backed by the excellent work of the DCWG, ALA President Molly Raphael’s response to the media and Random House was swift and consistent with our message to the membership.

In this climate of uncertainty and volatility, libraries must actively engage with publishers and distributors to advocate for our constituents and to clearly convey our values, interests, and concerns. As Feldman discovered in Germany, the eyes of the world are on the US ebook controversy and the role of ALA. The most talked-about issue was access, particularly the desire to meet customer needs within an e-content platform. But copyright, privacy, archiving, permanence, digitization, and library-produced content were also prominent in the discussions.

The DCWG and its subgroups must communicate in a meaningful fashion and keep the interests of library users in mind. The goal is to ensure that publishers are aware of the needs and concerns of libraries and their communities, and the group must persuade them to engage with libraries and strengthen those relationships in order to work toward viable solutions.

Several DCWG subgroups are preparing the following materials to assist in these efforts:

  • Communications to our libraries and staff;
  • Communications to our constituents (including those outside of libraries);
  • Ideas that support new business models for publishers and distributors; and
  • Advocacy efforts that support sound public policy decisions.

Even as these subgroups go about their work, DCWG members continue to work with ALA leaders to advance this agenda. During the 2012 Public Library Association (PLA) conference in March, Feldman addressed attendees at the Opening General Session. At that same conference PLA President Marcia Warner published an article about ebooks in the PLA Daily News (the conference newspaper). ALA and DCWG leadership have also met with library distributors, including 3M, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and OverDrive.

Among other aims, the DCWG will assist and advise ALA in its efforts to promote access to digital content by (1) meeting with individual publishers, ebook distributors, and other important stakeholders; (2) championing public advocacy at conferences and in online posts; and (3) writing position papers that advance practical business models without compromising library values.

But as we all know, the collective power of the library community is greater than that of any single group or organization. We encourage you to educate yourself on ebook usage in communities, schools, and academic institutions, and to discuss strategies that move the conversation forward. Be prepared to talk with decision makers—everyone from government officials to publishers to special interest groups.

Even with full ebook lending as our goal, we need to other implications and concerns related to digital content need to be addressed. DCWG subgroups are examining such critical issues as digitization, privacy and ethics, access for people with disabilities, and business models affecting all types of libraries.

We continue to be impressed by the intensity and commitment of ALA members to serve their communities in the best way possible without compromising the core values of our profession. We must continue to vet ideas and solutions and take action. We hope you find this American Libraries digital supplement informative and provocative, and we look forward to seeing you during the 2012 ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, California.

SARI FELDMAN is executive director of Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library. ROBERT WOLVEN is associate university librarian at Columbia University in New York City. They serve as cochairs of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group.

ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group

Supporting the “transformation” of libraries is one of the priorities of ALA’s 2015 Strategic Plan, and the rapid shift from print to digital content is one of the more dramatic developments now transforming libraries of all types.

New digital forms of information offer rich and extraordinary opportunities for libraries to expand community access to information and to revolutionize in positive ways the relationship between libraries and users. At the same time, these new forms of digital content pose new challenges for libraries.

As libraries struggle to meet these challenges of providing digital content in an environment characterized by significant uncertainty and changing on a daily basis, there is a need for an Association-wide group of experts, broadly representative of the many constituencies within the library community, that can proactively address these digital content opportunities and issues at the highest level and from both a policy and practical perspective.

In fall 2011, ALA President Molly Raphael appointed the cochairs and members of the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group. Further information about the group is available on ALA Connect.




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