PW’s U.S. Book Show Opens with Library Track

The title of the inaugural U.S. Book Show’s opening track, “Libraries Are Essential,” was likely a well-worn sentiment for much of its audience. But coming at the beginning of Publishers Weekly’s (PW) virtual event , held May 25–27 to replace the retired BookExpo, the block of public and academic library–centered programming offered a pointed message to publishing capping a year marked by complicated relations between libraries and e-content publishers.

PW U.S. Book Show logoThe title of the inaugural U.S. Book Show’s opening track, “Libraries Are Essential,” was likely a well-worn sentiment for much of its audience. But coming at the beginning of  Publishers Weekly’s (PW) virtual event, held May 25–27 to replace the retired BookExpo, the block of public and academic library–centered programming offered a pointed message to publishing capping a year marked by complicated relations between libraries and e-content publishers.

The program followed a brief keynote from Oprah Winfrey, in which she lauded the resilience of the book industry during the pandemic and gave a shout-out to independent booksellers. PW Senior Writer Andrew Richard Albanese, the track’s host, noted that libraries are foundational to the publishing industry not only as purchasers of books, but because of the work they do. “We cannot have a thriving book business without a strong, equitable society,” he said, “and librarians are dedicated to that mission.”

Sari Feldman—former director of Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) and 2015–16 president of the American Library Association (ALA)—introduced two current ALA leaders, Executive Director Tracie D. Hall and ALA President-elect Patty Wong, city librarian at the Santa Monica Public Library, CA. Hall offered kudos for the virtual conference format, noting that ALA successfully transitioned its Annual and Midwinter meetings online during the past year and brought in new attendees who could not have traveled to in-person events. Wong, who will assume the ALA presidency in June at the virtual Annual event, spoke of the association’s focus on reopening library buildings in the coming year, and its ongoing advocacy for digital equity and universal broadband.

 

DECONSTRUCTING “THE NEW NORMAL”

The first breakout session, “Toward a New Normal in Libraries,” featured Nicole A. Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and associate professor at the University of South Carolina (USC), and R. David Lankes, director of USC’s School of Information Science and author ofThe Atlas of New Librarianship andThe New Librarianship Field Guide (both MIT Press); the two cohost PW’s The Skillset Podcast.

“There are some really bad things about the old normal,” Lankes began. Now, he said, it’s time for libraries to help fix what was once considered normal through community conversation and action, while at the same time adjusting to new levels of post-pandemic uncertainty.

Cooke took issue not only with the idea, but the word normal itself, which “means different things to different people,” she pointed out. “I think this was a super clear moment where library workers pulled back a veil of hypocrisy that we have in the profession” on issues such as systemic racism and pay parity, Cook said. “We can’t go back even if we wanted to, and I don’t think we should.” Instead, she would like to see the concept shifted to encompass a “new reality,” a spectrum that will vary from place to place— libraries doing the work they did before, but making sure it’s equitable for everyone. Cooke was gratified to see library workers across the country speak up openly about what they needed during the pandemic, and noted that in the same way libraries care for communities, they also need to care for their staff. Lankes agreed: When libraries step in as first responders, it comes at a cost to workers. He posited an amended idea: Libraries as second responders, first restorers—helping knit communities back together while caring for their own internally.

Is library work undergoing a transformation in the wake of COVID-19? Albanese asked. “We’re becoming aware it’s not as easy as we thought it was,” Lankes responded. The closing of physical spaces during the pandemic revealed that the field was not as cohesive as some people thought, and conflicts over e-loan terms showed that more conversations were needed between libraries and publishers.

Libraries’ mission hasn’t changed, added Cooke, but has been “stretched and tested and challenged.” Considering the many articles in the mainstream press that have expressed surprise at how libraries have stepped up to serve their communities during the pandemic, maybe part of the new work should be improving their self-promotion “so people won’t say, ‘Omigod, I didn’t know libraries did that!’”

The first day of the U.S. Book Show fell on the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, and both speakers noted that while libraries have played an important role in the racial justice movement over the past year, they also need to address those issues internally. One of the best aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement, said Lankes, is that it has demonstrated that libraries cannot fall back on stating that they are neutral or unbiased spaces. “That’s not good enough. You have to take a stand.” Equity, diversity, and inclusion work is not an add-on, he noted; it’s fundamental to library values.

We need to do better, said Cooke. BIPOC workers are suffering the same pain and sadness as members of the communities they serve, and don’t always feel that they can be honest to leadership about it. We need to address retention issues, she said, as well as looking outward to recent legislation—bills discriminating against trans youth or diversity education—that will trickle down to libraries and reinforce the “old normal.”

On a positive note, Lankes and Cooke pointed out, instruction has widened to include areas such as serving underserved populations, informatics responding to weather and medical emergencies, and services to the incarcerated—it’s more hands-on, and encourages more hard conversations. “More people are ready, willing, and able to say, ‘I know this is messy, but I want to do the work,’” said Cooke.

 

CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS POST-PANDEMIC

In the session “If You Build It, Will They Come Back? The Future of Library Buildings Post-COVID-19,” directors from two Cleveland-area library systems—CCPL’s Tracey Strobel and Cleveland Public Library’s Felton Thomas—spoke about recent capital projects and how they are addressing the future of their buildings.

The pandemic forced them to take a closer look at ventilation, said Thomas, as well as outside and plaza spaces. Strobel has had to change her thinking about outdoor spaces, she admitted, even though they cost more to build and maintain, and the seasonal window for their use is narrow in northeast Ohio. She added that a number of physical changes have been driven by staff concerns as well as patron needs, and many safety precautions—plexiglass dividers, less seating—will remain in place.

Both systems have undertaken large construction projects in the past few years and have prioritized community input. You’re never too experienced not to keep learning, said Strobel, and every community has a unique perspective and set of expectations—invest time in listening and do it intentionally. And both directors stressed the importance of using local firms that reflect the library’s patrons. In Cleveland, a predominantly African American city, Thomas made sure “people could see those working on libraries who look like them.”

Strobel and Thomas were confident that people will steadily return to libraries as COVID cases decrease, for reasons ranging from a hunger for conversation and connection to needing help getting back to the workforce. Despite an uncertain economic forecast, a good rule of thumb for looking ahead, Strobel said, was “to keep public libraries healthy, so when the poor economy comes and people have less income, they can come to us.”

 

THE VIEW FROM IMLS

Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Director Crosby Kemper spoke with Cooke about the agency’s plans for distributing the healthy increase in federal funding allocated by the Biden administration. Most of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money has already gone out in grants to states, Kemper said, and IMLS will be issuing guidelines on another $20 million in funding soon. Priorities will include helping support digital equity work, particularly through outreach, and to make sure those efforts are sustainable.

Early childhood literacy is another area Kemper wants to see supported by IMLS funding, as is collaboration with school districts and business programs; the recent round of ARPA grants strongly encourage partnerships with local community and cultural organizations. In the long term, he said, he wants the influx of federal dollars to support libraries as places of cohesion and community conversation. Equity work as a whole, he noted, will be a critical aspect of IMLS’s grant making, adding, “My personal commitment is to make sure this isn’t a box-checking exercise.”

 

NEEDING NEW MODELS FOR E

In the afternoon, the focus moved to ebooks, with Michael Blackwell, director of the St. Mary’s County Library, MD, and an organizer of the ReadersFirst coalition; Veronda Pitchford, assistant director of the Califa Group; Lisa Rosenblum, director of the King County Library System, WA; and Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library, TX, weighing in. What changes did they see in digital circulation during the pandemic, Albanese asked, and how much of that increase in digital readership do they expect to remain?

Both Rosenblum and Salazar expect to see a leveling off, they said, after the large jump in digital usage during COVID—Rosenblum cited a jump from 4 million to 7.4 million in digital checkouts during that time, which meant moving the library’s acquisition budget from print to digital for a few months. Going forward, people will likely be more inclined to use digital formats, she said, but they still want choice. Balancing future investments in print versus digital, noted Salazar, will pose a challenge.

“Libraries and publishers have history of applying print solutions to digital problems,” said Albanese. “Is it time to change how we approach the digital content market?”

Despite progress made in the past seven years, acquiring e-content remains an issue, said Blackwell. No single model licensing model fits every library’s need, and costs are still unsustainable for many systems. “As long as we’re trapped in a license model, we need to put forward suggestions that are print-related,” he said. Libraries will need to look beyond the big five publishers for different, better models, all panelists agreed.

More formats equal more choices, said Pitchford; working with authors on a platform like Biblioboard has the potential to increase discovery. Salazar gave a shout-out to the work with local and self-published authors done by Las Vegas–Clark County Library District Director Kelvin Watson while he headed Florida’s Broward County Libraries. Blackwell pointed to open platforms such as DPLA Exchange [future home of Amazon ebooks for libraries] and SimplyE for library-owned ebook delivery, and noted that he would like to see an ownership model put forward by the big publishers—as well as a premium price perpetual access model, so that libraries don’t have to buy best-sellers repeatedly and can avoid gaps in popular series. “Without changes, we’re going to see ebooks being a boutique collection,” he said.

The panelists repeatedly emphasized the need to think out of the box, with Pitchford’s reminder that digital needs to serve as a tool to achieve the larger strategic goals for communities, including ensuring that the library connects with authors of color. There’s no going back to pre-pandemic services, they all agreed. User behavior has changed, and libraries will continue to make use of new comfort levels with the virtual environment and e-content.

Portland State University researchers Rachel Noorda and Kathi Inman Berens presented their recently released Project Panorama study Immersive Media & Books 2020, which looked at books’ place in the larger media ecosystem—how people engage with and discover books, and the importance of libraries in that process. The takeaway, as Blackwell said, is “publishers, we are your partners. And we’re coming up with solid data to back that up.”

 

ADVOCACY AND SOLIDARITY

Winding up the afternoon, Kathi Kromer, associate executive director of public policy and advocacy for ALA, and John Chrastka, Executive Director and founder of EveryLibrary, discussed funding, policy, and advocacy.

Kromer spoke out on the need for advocacy for the $5 billion bipartisan Build America’s Libraries Act, introduced in January to help fund upgrades to library infrastructure across the country. She encouraged supporters to email their local legislators and elected officials, post about the legislation on social media and tag members of congress, and use the resources on ALA’s advocacy page. Libraries should also avail themselves of the Universal Service Administrative Company’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, and additional resources found at ALA’s Emergency Broadband Benefit and Emergency Connectivity Fund resources. Both of these programs are temporary, she noted, so take action now.

Chrastka outlined EveryLibrary’s work to help ensure that government funding reaches school libraries as children and their families work to recover from a destabilized school year. “If you’re not in authorizing language, you’re never going to be in the appropriation,” he said; this is the time to advocate for the power and impact of effective school library programs. Those who want to take action can make their voices heard through EveryLibrary’s Save School Librarians webpage.

Closing keynoter Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Crown), mused on what interpersonal connection might look like in this next stage of life. After Palaces for the People was published in 2018, he said, the conversation had centered on the importance of places like libraries to help people participate in the everyday life of culture and democracy. In 2020, everything shifted, he said—“a sudden stop to our collective life.”

Rather than social distancing, Klinenberg felt that the better practice was social solidarity—physical distance, but with connection—to which libraries greatly contributed during the pandemic. As institutions reopen, he said, we need to support the places that make us feel secure and confident that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves and our screens; “The only way to come back from this is to burst the bubble and find a way to reassemble our public life.” As we begin to rebuild, Klinenberg said, libraries will be the ideal place for “physically engaging each other to remind ourselves that we are here for some greater purpose. And I can’t think of a time in my life when that has been more urgent.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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