All of the Big Six publishers are now working with libraries on ebook lending in some capacity, but pricing and licensing terms remain unfavorable in many cases, Saturday’s “ALA, Ebooks, and Digital Content: What’s Next?” panel at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago concluded. Meanwhile, concerns about long-term preservation of ebooks and other digital content are coming to the fore, and libraries are beginning to ponder what role they might play in the emerging self-publishing market.
“While access is improving, pricing [by the Big Six] is not really improving all that much,” said Alan S. Inouye, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) during the panel.
Inouye noted that the library ebook outlook has improved significantly since ALA first convened its Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG) in January 2012, but the current environment is far from ideal.
“A year and a half ago, frankly we didn’t know if we’d ever get here, or how long it would take,” he said. “So having all of the Big Six publishers involved in the library ebook market [either through active licensing programs or pilot tests] is a great thing. On the other hand… there’s still a lot more to do.”
While continuing to deal with unresolved issues concerning ebook availability and pricing, ALA and the DCWG must begin to determine what other digital content topics they are best suited to address.
Inouye was joined by five other DCWG members, including panelists Sari Feldman, DCWG co-chair and executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, OH; Nate Hill, assistant director of technology and digital initiatives for the Chattanooga Public Library, TN; Rebecca Kennison, director of the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, Columbia University, NY; and Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information. The panel was moderated by Robert Wolven, Columbia University librarian and DCWG co-chair.
Self-publishing and digital content production have begun emerging as one likely component of the field’s future, Wolven said.“Libraries are doing a lot of things around producing, making available, [and] disseminating digital content. It’s the library not as a consumer [of content from publishers], but as producer, creator, and disseminator.”
Lynch agreed, arguing that “this is something that really should not be overlooked. We’re seeing a renaissance in authors being able to take their own works to the public, which is wonderful on many, many bases, but very problematic in terms of the institutions and the practices that we’ve set up to cope with that. We owe it to those authors and to the public to sort that out.”
Publishing the little things
The library’s role as publisher does not have to be limited to ebooks, Hill said. Two years ago, during a presentation at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, Hill proposed an idea for a modified ILS that would allow patrons to write and publish ebooks on a library platform, and would enable other patrons to up-vote or otherwise vouch for self-published content that they liked.
“I thought this was a super-awesome idea,” he said. “It seemed really interesting. And then I went and worked for the next year in Chattanooga, and it struck me that the notion that people were going to change their mental model of what a library is and actually do something that involved, that engaged—not so much. When I think of what we’re talking about with content creation in the library, I’d be satisfied if we had a lot of people coming in creating animated GIFs. People coming in and creating micro pieces of content that aren’t big serious heavy volumes and whatnot.”
The concept of content creation and publishing ties in with the budding MakerSpace movement, Hill added, noting that Chattanooga is prototyping these types of services.
“The concept has taken us to a point where we’re producing physical content. We know that we’re going to be an entry point in this bigger ecosystem…. It’s OK for us to be a place where people go and dabble a little bit. They can fail and have their ideas, and then move on to a commercial space or a business incubator.”
A media lab could be viewed similarly, he said—as a MakerSpace for digital content.
Academic libraries are further along in their adoption of publishing as a central function, with many now maintaining institutional repositories or publishing open access journals. But these institutions are facing their own set of questions regarding how that role will evolve.
“How do we, within the library…help our researchers to really get their stuff in a form where people can access it, can use it, and can build on it?” Kennison said.
Columbia’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship currently hosts and works with a variety of digital collaboration systems, she said. But in addition to maintaining appropriate platforms for a variety of different types of content, the library also helps faculty and students navigate the changing world of publishing.
“We do provide a variety of platforms [and] hosting services. We also do consultation. What are some best practices? We talk about open access versus subscription [journals and databases]…We deal with a variety of business models…. A lot of people don’t know anything about author transfer agreements, that they can’t just stick something up and call it copyrighted, trustees of Columbia University.”
Publishing can become a complex endeavor, but as many academic libraries have discovered, the function can help give an institution better long-term control over a portion of its intellectual output. And as Lynch pointed out, in an environment of loan limits, digital rights management software, and subscription-based content licensing, libraries must be aware of how challenging it may become to preserve digital content over which they do not have such control.
“This is one [challenge] that really haunts me, and I can’t tell you how delighted I am that we are starting to talk about that,” Lynch said. “Our cultural record, and the materials that our libraries deal with, covers a lot more than books or ebooks. In particular, it covers sound recordings, video materials, things like that. In a sense, what we have today—as opposed to what we can see coming in the future for libraries and ebooks—is kind of a crisis of convenience. We can’t get things in ebook form under the terms we need, but we have the safety net that we can buy it in print…. The really dangerous stuff happens when cultural materials of high impact stop being produced in a format that we can apply first sale to.”