March 28, 2023

Internet Archive’s Peter Brantley Urges Librarians to More Actively Reshape the Digital Landscape | ALA Annual 2012


The Internet Archive’s Peter Brantley made a cogent and precise presentation at the American Library Association conference this week that urged the librarian community to do a better job of shaping the multitude of conversations that ultimately affect how and what libraries can do with digital content.

Brantley, the director of the Bookserver Project at IA, said librarians, rather than just saying yes or no to various business models put forth by the Big Six publishers, need to be much more active.

“I think it is really, really, really important for us not to be passive in those conversations,” Brantley said. “And we have probably not done as good a job there as we could.”

The conversations also need to move beyond the Big Six, particularly as the publishing landscape rapidly flattens, Brantley said.

“It’s not just the Big Six and it’s not even just the small and independent publisher, but there’s this huge universe of truly independently published material that’s very, very difficult for libraries to get a hold of,” said Brantley, who added that in recent conversations he had with the Library of Congress the staff there expressed great concern about the inability to acquire much of this material.

“This is material, for example, that an author might publish into Kindle’s Direct program only. So there’s no way for us, in the public library context, to get a hold of it,” Brantley said. “We have to think, as a broad community, how do we touch that kind of material. We really might not like to see a world in which access to books ends up getting fractionated across vendors.”

Brantley gave a nod to the joint effort under way in Canada, under the direction of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council and eBOUND Canada that is seeking, as LJ reported,  to build a national public library infrastructure for the storage and distribution of digital content that would also manage lending agreements with publishers as well as transactions between libraries and patrons.

In a June 5 request for information (RFI), the Canadian groups hit on many of the principles that were enunciated in the joint Canadian-U.S. Readers First initiative, but the Urban Libraries Council effort is in some ways more tangible and advanced. For example, in the RFI they are specifically requesting vendors to ensure that the storage location “must allow for the portability of material at the libraries’ discretion.”

“We have at least something to watch and learn from as the Canadian effort moves along,” Brantley said.

Librarians need also to be aware and participating in more technical conversations that could have a significant impact on their operations, Brantley said, such as the Independent Digital Publishing Forum’s request for comments on a plan for alternative DRM schemes. Such alternatives could move the library lending mechanism beyond its present reliance on the Adobe Content Server (IDPF recently extended the comment period until June 29).

“Adobe Content Server is a very poorly supported software that has seen better days,” Brantley said. “It is not well loved by anyone who uses it, and it also imposes a lot of technical and organizational burdens on libraries.”

IDPF’s exploration of a standard “lightweight” DRM for EPUB is generally seen as more useful in non-retail business models, such as library e-lending, and a broadly adopted, standard method of protecting ebook content could, according to IDPF, “materially increase interoperability, ameliorate some of the ease-of-use limitations in current DRMs, and may promote broader adoption of digital reading.”

A number of publishers are recognizing that in some ways DRM can work against their interests, including its lack of user-friendliness and the way ebook distributors can use it to “lock in” consumers, according to IDPF.

Brantley said this sentiment was in evidence in conversations he had with publishers at the recent BookExpo conference, some of whom expressed a willingness to explore alternative DRM schemes with libraries. Regardless of the ultimate merits of lightweight DRM, librarians need to be part of the conversation.

“These kind of things would help to relocate where we are having the conversation,” Brantley said. “It shifts the variables a little bit about what we need to talk about and what kind of principles we have about the content we are making available and on what terms, and I think that kind of fundamental questioning is really important for us to have.”

(The Canadian company Enthrill is also doing work on alternative DRM schemes.)

A more active attitude also extends to book rights, and the gamut of nascent models that are rethinking how libraries might gain access to books for lending. Brantley pointed to the Unglue.It project from GlueJar under Eric Hellman, which recently “unglued” its first title, or the Library License project being run by the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory.

In the latter project, authors are encouraged to be more mindful in their negotiations with publishers about ensuring that once sales of their books fall below a certain threshold that a license will take effect that gives full digital rights to libraries.

“It’s really important for libraries to think about how we engage with authors in shaping contracts with publishers,” Brantley said. “That might end up liberating us in the long run by breaking open the rights package and allowing us to do things that we might not otherwise be able to do because all we’ve been thinking about is the rights given to us by publishers — and that is not all the world.”

Brantley reminded the audience that major players in the publishing industry, the people really selling books, are the West Coast technology titans like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

“This is the marketplace where people buy books, and they buy them as part of comprehensive media platforms that are intended to be proprietary and siloized by those vendors … and books in many ways are an afterthought for them,” Brantley said. “We need to realize that we are an interesting alternative that publishers ought to really care about.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


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