Public Library Advocates Build the Case for #eBooksForAll | PLA 2020

Nearly four months after Macmillan enacted its 60-day embargo on library ebooks, the state of digital collections is still a subject of intense interest in the field. This played out at the Public Library Association (PLA) conference, held in Nashville, TN, on 25–29, when the panel “Building the Case for #eBooksForAll” saw attendance of close to 300 conferencegoers.

#eBooksForAll logoNearly four months after Macmillan enacted its 60-day embargo on library ebooks, the state of digital collections is still a subject of intense interest in the field. This played out at the Public Library Association (PLA) conference, held in Nashville, TN, on 25–29, when the panel “Building the Case for #eBooksForAll” saw attendance of close to 300 conferencegoers. The panel featured speakers from a number of corners of the industry—Alan Inouye, American Library Association (ALA) senior director of public policy and government relations; San Antonio Public Library Director Ramiro Salazar; Magan Szwarek, director of reference services at Schaumburg Township District Library, IL; Cranston Public Library, RI, assistant director Julie Holden; and Columbus Metropolitan Library System (CMLS) director Pat Losinski—with plenty of on-the-ground intel to get attendees up to speed.

Salazar outlined the basics of the #eBooksForAll advocacy movement, which launched in Nashville in September 2019, after PLA and ALA invited the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) and Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) to join forces. A number of libraries across the country chose to boycott Macmillan, and a petition protesting the embargo, bearing more than 160,000 signatures, was delivered to Macmillan offices on October 30 (the number of signatures is now up to 250,000). Stakeholders have formed a Joint Working Group on eBook and Digital Content Pricing in Libraries.

Macmillan isn’t the only issue driving libraries’ concerns, noted Inouye. Changes to licensing models for digital audiobooks, as well as ongoing challenges posed by Amazon, mean that libraries need to keep the pressure on. To help libraries step up and meet those challenges, ALA has developed a four-pronged advocacy plan: a public campaign, with resources available on ALA’s #eBooksForAll webpage; direct engagement with the industry; federal government intervention; and state government intervention. This advocacy is necessary cyclical, Inouye added—the campaigns around Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funding or the Library Services and Technology Act, for instance, sometimes need to take precedence.



ALA has been meeting with the House Judiciary Committee, which last fall asked ALA to provide comments in connection with its investigation into an antitrust subcommittee investigation into competition in digital markets. At the state level, two bills have been introduced in New York: Senate Bill S7576, introduced by Sen. Rachel May, and Assembly Bill A9881, introduced by Assemblyman Sean Ryan, would require publishers to offer ebook licenses to libraries under “reasonable terms”; both are currently in committee. Some 10,000 advocate letters have gone out to members of the New York State legislature.

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) is chair of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, and in February he met with staff and patrons from the Cranston Public Library to talk about ebooks, said Holden. All participants were eloquent and passionate about their use of electronic materials and issues with access, and Cicilline came away from the round table meeting strongly connected to the issue; he has requested more data from the library. One panelist at the round table was a state senator, who plans to introduce legislation similar to New York’s. The Rhode Island Library Association has also connected with the state’s Attorney General, presenting him with a 14-page memo on the subject, and had a press conference planned for early March. ALA has posted a page of background information for libraries to offer policymakers going forward.



Szwarek outlined some of the impact measures being developed around library ebook use, particularly through the work of the Panorama Project. In addition to the project’s community reading impact survey, last year Panorama launched a Readers’ Advisory Impact Committee designed to help tell impact stories to publishers through its Directory of Readers’ Advisory Activities.

Much work has been done, but “we’re going to have to ramp this up as a profession in a big, big way,” said Losinski. While the focus has been mainly on Macmillan, concerns about Amazon’s ability to scrape customer data and restrict access to formats are ongoing as well. A piece of the library’s advocacy begins with educating staff, he said, and investigating what information can be gathered that the library can use to help make decisions and advocate for customers. CMLS’s E-content webpage features a rotating series of content from OverDrive’s Digital Downloads Collaboration. In addition, the system has made sure to push the ebook story out to local media, including a guest editorial Losinski penned for the Columbus Dispatch.

Audience questions were insightful and amplified the discussion. When one attendee noted that Macmillan was a symptom of the larger problem presented by Amazon, the panelists agreed, stating that libraries need to be prepared to advocate for more control both at the congressional level and with sympathetic local allies. Vendors who are seen as allies include Brodart, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram, said Losinski. Libraries should also look toward reaching out to authors, who don’t always have hold the same view of the situation—as indicated by recent posts on the Authors Guild website airing members’ concerns about their royalties.

One audience member asked why Macmillan was given booth space at the conference at the same time that they had been disinvited to speak. Salazar, who is also the current PLA president, said that the organization felt it was necessary to keep some form of communication open with the publisher, rather than cut it off. It did cross leadership’s mind to disinvite them entirely, but “You need to maintain relations,” added Inouye. “That’s a very serious decision.” (As of press time, Macmillan is reportedly reconsidering its ebook licensing model.)

Most importantly, professional associations need to work together on issues around digital lending with an eye toward the long haul. “We all need to be poised to educate users and connect with the public” on the subject, Losinski added. “This is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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