The only certainty in the library community is that we live in uncertain times. Buffeted by technological turbulence, the very roles and functions of libraries are up for reexamination and reinvention, as evidenced by the articles in American Libraries’ June 2013 E-Content Digital Supplement. But the truly fundamental change is a shift in foundational relationships—as is a hallmark in revolutions. We can, understandably, become obsessed with equitable ebook licensing terms and the integration of digital-content discoverability into library systems. However, underlying these changes is the fact that significant aspects of the decision-making that library managers control have moved into the hands of the executives of publishing houses, distributor companies, and other organizations outside of the library community. This changing landscape necessitates that the library community develop fundamentally different ways of operating.
In the face of this uncertainty, we observe some movement toward increasing communication, cooperation, and collaboration among members of this community. In the world of ebooks, notable collaborations include the Digital Public Library of America, the ReadersFirst Initiative, OCLC’s Big Shift project, and ALA’s own Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG). Each effort successfully brings together many local library leaders as well as representatives from national and regional library organizations.
Also supportive of broader library efforts to collaborate is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was prescient in its strategy shift to emphasize the development of organizational infrastructure and collaborative capacity for the library community. The Edge public library benchmarks initiative is one such funded effort. The Digital Public Library of America also represents an important, visible, large-scale collaborative undertaking in the digital content space.
This collaborative movement is essential. The magnitude of what we need to do in the coming months and years is staggering. No one organization has the resources to lead, coordinate, or even meaningfully participate in every facet of the necessary work ahead. There is strength in our numbers, and we cannot afford to duplicate efforts or work at cross purposes.
Library organizations are eclectic. We have different resources, core competencies, staff expertise, and constituencies. Some organizations have greater research capabilities, while others are better suited for external communications and advocacy. Some have staying power and offer better homes for longer-term efforts and sustainability, while others may be best at supporting targeted projects. We need to determine our roles carefully to ensure that we are doing work to which we are best suited. For example, in the past year ALA took on the national bully pulpit role, a natural fit for the largest library association in the world and a strong voice for libraries in both traditional and emerging media.
We are yet in the early stages of developing power collaborations. We need interoperability based on standards, best practices, and compatible work processes. Our constituents need common expectations about library services. It won’t do for a user to encounter a radically different experience in going from one library to another. Working in library silos will not lead to easy-to-use or effective services.
There are fiscal tensions. Communication, cooperation, and collaboration are not cost-free. Experience has proven that these costs can be substantial. Many cooks in the kitchen may lead to compromise and bureaucracy, potentially inhibiting creativity and innovation. Thus, we must be strategic and selective in how we work together. However, while we players in the library community must work together and keep one another informed, we are not suggesting some kind of mega-coordinating central organization.
We are eager to continue our efforts to communicate through existing channels. We invite libraries, nonprofit library organizations, and researchers to submit information and reports about their digital efforts to firstname.lastname@example.org; DCWG will use what has been provided to create posts for possible inclusion in American Libraries’ E-Content blog, the central communications mechanism of ALA’s DCWG.
There has been progress. Since the second American Libraries supplement on ebooks and digital content was published in mid-2012, four of the Big Six publishers—Hachette Book Group, Penguin, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster—have initiated pilot library ebook programs. It’s true that these outcomes are far from ideal, but they are steps in the right direction. Home-grown endeavors within the library community continue to blossom and expand, with the seemingly tireless James LaRue, director of Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries, leading the way. But we must be realistic: In this time of exploration and experimentation, not every development will be in our favor and not every new initiative or project will succeed.
Let us remind ourselves of library values, which are at the core of our communities of practice. Librarians are among the most trusted professionals in society. Our mission remains critical, as evidenced by the numerous library supporters across the country who continue to stand with us. Technological advances provide, at least in theory, the potential for much improved library service in a world increasingly dominated by profit-driven information providers. For everyone’s sake, we must figure out how to convert this theory to practice by strategically pooling and leveraging our strengths.
MAUREEN SULLIVAN is ALA president. KEITH MICHAEL FIELS is ALA executive director. ALAN S. INOUYE is director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy and program manager of ALA’s Digital Content Initiative.