Who Do You Trust?

The invisible hand of the market, or the heavy hand of the state?

February 19, 2014

The Connecticut library community has engaged its legislators in the ebook-availability debate. The “Report to the General Assembly’s General Law Committee pursuant to Special Act 13-10, “An Act Concerning a Study Regarding the Availability of Electronic Books to Users of Public Libraries” is the result.

The report has three parts: “Whether and How Electronic Books Are Made Available to Public Libraries” (they are, and libraries are making progress in literal availability of Big Five titles, although the prices and terms are problematic); “Problems with Current Practices” (which includes a ringing endorsement of the role of the public library in bridging the digital divide); and finally, legislature-directed “Recommendations to Increase Availability of Electronic Books to Library Users.”

It's a thoughtful report, even-handed and reasonably comprehensive. It would be, in fact, a great insert in the nation’s library board packets this month.

Library Journal has pointed out that there’s not much here about the growing concern over patron privacy, and that’s true. On the other hand, I was taken by the report’s astute observation that “a certain amount of library resources are required to assist users in locating and downloading ebooks. According to the Connecticut e-Book Survey, about half of libraries receive daily or weekly requests for help downloading ebooks and another 18% receive such requests on a monthly basis.”

Let’s think about that for a moment. From a commercial perspective, public libraries are not only part of the discovery and marketing of the Big Five’s offerings, we are the tech help—the support desk for the nation. (Both my local Apple and Best Buy outlets routinely refer new purchasers of e-readers to the library for setup and training.) Some Colorado libraries have reported that this kind of one-on-one computer instruction may account for as much as 20% of all reference transactions. So (a) libraries are not compensated for these extremely labor-intensive services, and (b) we are punished for them by high prices. The invisible hand can also be heavy.

But the report also notes the beginnings of a significant rift in the market, which is not driven entirely by legacy publishers. While the Big Five circle the wagons and greatly increase the “friction” (read: complexity) of doing business with them, hundreds of more agile publishers are eager to embrace what for them is the new market of the library. They like the potential to reach millions of card-holders and potential customers. As the report states, the environment of e-publishing and libraries is still “in flux.”

And that leads to the Recommendations. The first urges Connecticut on a path similar to that of Colorado’s (the Evoke 2.0 project), California’s enki, and Massachusetts’ ebook project: to create “a statewide ebook distribution platform that would enable [Connecticut’s] libraries to expand and better manage their e-content collections and enhance their negotiating position when dealing with publishers or other owners of e-content.” Let’s call this the entrepreneurial state position. Cut out the middle man, and actively engage with the market not as a victim, but as a player.

A second choice: Give libraries more money to buy what their strained budgets and a suddenly overcrowded market deny the public. Calling for money, of course, isn’t the same thing as providing it. The one mechanism described—creating a “special fund for the purchase of ebooks that would be funded by an assessment on book publishers, from which they could be exempt if they made their ebooks available to libraries on reasonable terms”—was rejected on First Amendment grounds.

The third option sounds like a decision not to decide: “Wait and see” before “imposing regulatory considerations.” The report notes the risk: “Later intervention could result in the market becoming cemented in a way of doing business that is contrary to the public interest.”

But for all the judiciousness of the response, regulatory responses aren’t off the table forever. Makers of public policy now have the issue on their radar. More important, it appears that Connecticut librarians may set their own hands to the future.

JAMES LARUE is a library writer, speaker, and consultant. He can be reached at jlarue[at]jlarue.com.