Last month, Connecticut became the latest state to launch an investigation into the pricing and availability of ebooks in public and academic libraries. Supporters of H.B. 5614—the bill that mandates the study—had to scale down their ambitions somewhat. Introduced in January by State Representative Rep. Brian Sear (D-47th Assembly Dist.), the original version of the bill would have forced any publisher selling ebooks in Connecticut to offer those ebook titles to libraries as well, and to charge libraries the same prices charged to other consumers.
“Truthfully, we thought ‘well, this may not have much of a shot at passing, but at least it will gain some attention, hopefully at the state level among people who should be more aware of what’s going on with ebooks,’ ” explains Richard Conroy, director of the Essex Library Association and board member of the Connecticut Library Association (CLA).
After the bill got off to a promising start, opposition from the publishing industry became predictably intense. Lobbyists and lawyers from the Big Six trade publishers, as well as Apple and Amazon, pressured Connecticut lawmakers and threatened to fight the bill on First Amendment grounds, Conroy says.
The bill appeared unlikely to pass, but based on its initial momentum, “we felt like we had a possible winner here, that we could actually pass something,” he says. “So we backed off on the language to go from making them sell the ebooks to us and making them sell at a reasonable rate, to at least getting [a] study under way through the Department of Consumer Affairs.”
The revised bill is not so revolutionary. It simply mandates an investigation into the current state of ebook availability in libraries. But with the signature of Gov. Dannel Malloy on June 12, the bill moved Connecticut into the ranks of a growing number of states that are working to ensure that ebooks will be available to their residents in the future, regardless of the vagaries of the publishing market.
“It’s not a fairness issue, it’s an accessibility issue,” Conroy says.
Librarians are certainly familiar with Conroy’s sentiment. The outlook for ebook lending has improved considerably during the past 18 months, with all of the Big Six publishers now either actively licensing frontlist titles to libraries or exploring the possibility via pilot programs. But as recently as the winter of 2012, Random House and HarperCollins were alone among that group. Also, last year, Random House began charging a 300 percent markup over retail, while HarperCollins continued its policy of limiting libraries to 26 loans for each ebook.
For librarians, this environment offered fertile ground for the backlash that resulted in movements such as the Reader’s First Initiative, a coalition of libraries demanding that publishers lift access restrictions for libraries and that vendors simplify the lending process. These frustrations also spurred innovations such as the library-managed ebook model developed by Douglas County Libraries (DCL) in Colorado. Now, those movements are bearing new fruit with larger programs emerging in California, Kansas, Arizona, and Massachusetts.
In May, California’s Califa Group debuted a proprietary ebook platform called Enki. Developed in conjunction with the Contra Costa County Library (CCCL) with the support of software consultancy Quipu Group, Enki was designed to allow member libraries to loan out ebook content hosted on Califa-managed Adobe Content Servers, similar to the Douglas County model. The State Library of Kansas, which provided seed funding for the project, plans to debut Enki to users of its online EZ Library this month. Massachusetts and Arizona are in earlier stages with their own projects, but the Douglas County model was an initial source of inspiration for both. Although there are differences in their approaches and goals, in all four cases, key objectives include giving libraries within these states more long-term control over a portion of their ebook content and giving them a way to acquire and host ebook content donated by or purchased directly from authors, publishers, and independent distributors.
“I see the Enki platform giving access to small presses and self-published work,” says Kansas State Librarian Joanne (Jo) Budler, LJ’s 2013 Librarian of the Year.
Question of ownership
Consortial arrangements have long helped states address the issue of ebook access from an affordability standpoint. For example, in late 2005, the Kansas Digital Library Consortium began building a collection of ebooks that would be available to any resident of the state, regardless of whether their local library system had a program in place.
“The state library believes in equity of access,” Budler says. “We have a lot of small-town libraries in Kansas—about 300 libraries that [each] serve fewer than 10,000 people. If you live in one of those little towns, the likelihood of you being able to start up your own ebook service for your library users is pretty small.”
But as Budler discovered during a much-watched dispute with OverDrive, ownership of digital content can be a slippery concept. During negotiations for the renewal of the state library’s contract with OverDrive in 2010, the company’s initial proposal would have increased costs associated with the platform by 700 percent through 2014. OverDrive contends that its existing contract pricing was very low for servicing an entire state system, and later proposals amended these cost increases. However, negotiations soon broke down. Budler asked to migrate ebook licenses purchased through OverDrive to a new platform, but the company balked.
The Kansas State Attorney General’s office became involved in the ensuing fight, and, ultimately some, but not all, of the Kansas Digital Library Consortium’s OverDrive content was moved to the 3M Cloud Library platform that hosts the new Kansas EZ Library. The dispute was a vivid illustration of how, in this new era of licensed content, libraries in many ways are increasingly constrained by the business decisions of both publishers and platform providers.
The problem helped lead to Kansas’s involvement with Califa’s Enki platform. It helped spur Massachusetts into action as well.
“Libraries are in a tough spot with a middleman negotiating on our behalf,” Deb Hoadley, advisor and team leader for the Massachusetts Statewide eBook Project, tells LJ. “The [Massachusetts Library System (MLS)] Statewide eBook Pilot Project is an attempt to break down barriers created by silos of ebooks constructed by these vendors with their own platform and content. These ebooks are often not owned by libraries, and due to negotiations with publishers, even if a title is owned, it is not transferable to third parties.”
MLS has been working in conjunction with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) on their ebook project since May 2012. Initially, long-term ownership and management of ebook content was a key goal, and MBLC specifically cited the Douglas County model when announcing the pilot program in October 2012. But the aim of the program has since expanded. Making a range of materials available to state residents—including materials purchased under a variety of licensing arrangements—will likely be part of the program as well, according to Cynthia Roach, head of library advisory and government liaison for MBLC.
With those guidelines, the Massachusetts program may ultimately look similar to the programs in Kansas and California, where Enki is intended to supplement, rather than supplant, content purchased from commercial vendors through statewide consortial arrangements.
Still, there remains one area in which ownership remains important to Massachusetts, Roach says.
“There are probably things we do want to own,” she says. “We definitely want a local component to our project, and we want the ability to load local content to work with authors in the state who may be willing to give us [content].”
For example, Roach says that an author in Watertown, MA, had approached their local library system about donating several past works as ebooks.
“We want to have a mechanism in place for libraries to accept things like that,” she says.
At press time, MLS and MBLC were scheduled to roll out a test version of the platform to 50 pilot libraries in July. After a six-month test, the program will be reevaluated in January 2014.
DAZL’d in Arizona
The Digital Arizona Library (DAZL) hopes to achieve similar goals. As early as 2011, representatives from the Scottsdale Public Library, Pima County Public Library, and Arizona State Library began discussing the idea of a proprietary state ebook platform. Last year, they joined with representatives at the Maricopa County Library District and the Yavapai County Free Library District to study the issue in earnest.
Although DAZL is at an earlier stage of development than the projects in California, Kansas, and Massachusetts, a series of ten on-site and two online focus groups organized by the Bishoff Group and LYRASIS in October 2012 helped define the parameters of the project. Librarians who participated in the focus groups agreed that they wanted an ebook system that would integrate with their existing digital collections and would complement the investment that individual systems had already made in licenses purchased through OverDrive or other platforms. Ideally, DAZL content would also be available to multiple users at the same time to reduce holds lists.
Arizona librarians also thought that a state ebook system should emphasize the collection of adult fiction, young adult fiction, and adult nonfiction regardless of the publisher or provider. And, as with the Massachusetts project, content from local authors and publishers will ultimately become a priority.
“We think that there’s an opportunity for libraries and their communities to develop something collaboratively, to highlight the stuff that doesn’t have a multimillion-dollar advertising budget,” says Aimee Fifarek, deputy director of IT and digital initiatives at Phoenix Public Library and DAZL working group project manager.
The first step in the project’s development involved coalition building, Fifarek adds.
“One of the things that we’ve been grappling with here in Arizona is that we know that where other projects have gone really well there has been an existing consortia or collaboration to build upon, and we don’t really have a significant resource sharing consortium here. So we didn’t have a home for DAZL. That was part of what we started talking about with some of the library directors.”
After receiving analyses conducted by the Bishoff Group, LYRASIS, and Carson Block Consulting in late 2012, Fifarek in February submitted a final report and recommendation to Arizona State Librarian Joan Clark. The next order of business will be to establish and staff a position for a DAZL project manager at the state library, propose a sustainable budget, and submit RFPs (requests for proposals) to vendors for the development of the platform and its APIs (application programming interfaces). Although at press time, a specific timetable had not been set, a pilot could potentially be ready as early as 2013.
After conducting its own investigation, perhaps Connecticut will follow a similar path. These new models offer libraries a new degree of control over certain types of ebooks and could help libraries begin to build collections of locally created, born-digital content. Also, while most major publishers now appear to be warming to the idea that libraries can be good partners and good customers in the ebook marketplace, this may not always be the case.
“Just because [publishers and vendors] decide today that they are coming around doesn’t mean that they won’t change that model six months or five years from now,” says CCCL deputy county librarian Cathy Sanford, referring to a central motivation behind the development of Enki. “It’s not set in