November 28, 2022

LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit Panelists Remind Librarians of an Old Creed: Free to All


Ebook Summit Keynote PanelThe keynote panel at Ebooks: The New Normal, a virtual ebook summit held Wednesday by Library Journal and School Library Journal, brought together panelists from three very different sectors of the library world who, nonetheless, found common ground, particularly on the need to ensure equitable access to digital materials.

“Libraries are about democracy. Right now anyone, any age, any demographic, poor, wealthy, took a shower yesterday or didn’t, can walk into a library, pick a book up, and check it out,” said Robin Nesbitt, the technical services coordinator of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Ohio.

“Currently that isn’t true with ebooks. If you can afford an ereader you can get ebooks. If not you’re out of luck,” Nesbitt said.

Adapt or die situation
Nesbitt told the audience at “Ebooks: The New Normal” that libraries are agents of democracy, and that it was of “vital importance” that they, in conjunction with publishers, bridge the gap.

“We have to put ourselves out there where are users are at,” Nesbitt said in response to a question from one of the nearly 2000 people who registered for the conference. “It still frightens me that there are a lot of librarians that aren’t out on Twitter and Facebook, and that libraries themselves don’t have a presence out there in the digital world,” she said.

She said a physical presence outside the normal comfort zones, such as ebook training in coffee shops or airports, was as necessary as a digital presence to make sure libraries are heard.

“This is an adapt or die situation,” she said. “People that are digital natives, if they can’t find it through the library they are going to go elsewhere,” she said. “We need to prepare and have as much content as possible.”

And if libraries are going to lobby publishers to have the content, she said that libraries need to have a voice.

“It may not be just ALA or the Urban Libraries Council,” she said. “We need to be a voice to publishers and consumers that libraries are an important place to discover ebooks, and we want to remain relevant in people’s reading world,” she said.

Nesbitt said the September 21 announcement that library ebook content was now compatible with Amazon’s Kindle ereader was “a game changer and a leveler.”

“I’m just waiting for the tsunami of demand, especially come Christmas time when more folks get these things,” she said. Kindle pricing starts now at $79.

“Now you’re really bringing that price point down where more folks can either get the reader, or … you can get a free app on your phone,” she said.

School libraries not yet at “the new normal”
While Nesbitt offered the public library perspective, Buffy Hamilton, a school library media specialist at Creekview High School in Canton, Georgia, who blogs as The Unquiet Librarian, talked about school libraries.

“Unfortunately, we are not at that point yet where ebooks are the new normal,” she said.

Budget cuts have required school librarians to think about “creative sources of funding” in order to ensure access for students and teachers.

Hamilton said there were two primary challenges: ubiquitous access to econtent (including students who have disabilities) and also whether ebooks will provide “a fundamentally different kind of literacy or reading experience.”

“If so, is that going to be a positive experience or how might it be a game changer, particularly for  students who might be reluctant readers or, for students who already have a love of reading, how might access to that ebook enhance that transaction with the book,” she said.

She said ebooks have to be integrated “in a thoughtful and intentional way,” and if they enhance the learning experience for children, “that should be reflected I think in school improvement plans and, consequently, budgets. It’s being part of a larger conversation of what are we going to make priorities for our children,” she said.

Hamilton, like Nesbitt, said access for everyone has to remain an abiding concern.

“It’s real easy to forget that there is a segment of America that doesn’t have access to those devices from a financial standpoint. I think libraries of all kinds are a player in providing access to devices and content, but it also speaks to the need that … we think of ourselves as more than just a book provider,” she said, which is a programming challenge.

DPLA may help guard against going backward
John Palfrey said the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) project might be a mechanism to help ensure that librarians can still live by the “Free to All” motto which is engraved over the bust of Athena at the entrance to the Boston Public Library.

“One of the great fears of the digital age is that we actually are risking going backwards, and librarians I think have really reasonable fears, as books and other objects become things that we license rather than buy, that we won’t be able to live up to this history that we have,” said Palfrey, who is the vice dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School and a faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He also is on the DPLA’s steering committee.

“The DPLA, in large measure, is thought of as an idea for how we can help design spaces and design systems that will meet those traditional goals of libraries but in this digital era,” he said.

The DPLA will make available tools and services to other libraries, such as open source code and a store of metadata, but content was a big part of what it hopes to offer. Palfrey said there was enormous benefit in bringing together into a usable environment all the content that has already been digitized, through projects such as the HathiTrust, Internet Archive, and Google Books.

“I hope what we can do, in essence, is roll up access to content from lots of different projects, not recreate wheels, and in fact provide things that are really usable and helpful to libraries,” he said.

“Even setting aside the question of copyright, I think we can do much more in America to make available, in a way that people could find it and use it, … lots of content,” Palfrey said. “We will over time certainly engage the issue of how could we work with publishers to provide content on a free to all basis, but …. there’s a lot that we can do before we join those issues,” he said.

Palfrey said the project was for U.S. libraries, although it could someday integrate with efforts elsewhere, such as Europeana.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

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