E-Access, Innovation, and Adoption | PLA 2022

E-access was a hot topic at the Public Library Association (PLA) 2022 conference, held in Portland, OR, from March 23–25. Programs examining points along the pipeline from licensing to broadband to innovative infrastructure were well attended.

e-reader with charging cord plugged into pile of booksE-access was a hot topic at the Public Library Association (PLA) 2022 conference, held in Portland, OR, from March 23–25. Programs examining points along the pipeline from licensing to broadband to innovative infrastructure were well attended.

The upticks in digital usage over the past two years have driven change on both the library and publisher side—though, as speakers on the panel “Digital Books: Where Do We Go From Here?” noted, not enough. The pandemic was what King County Library System, WA, Executive Director Lisa Rosenblum called “the great accelerant” in ebook use. While libraries’ increased priority on e-content was a boon for users, but often a challenge for budgeting and cost management on the library side. Kelvin Watson, executive director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District (LVCC) and former cochair for the American Library Association (ALA) Digital Content Working Group, also addressed pricing models. While smaller publishers have been amenable to partnering for more equitable solutions, libraries have yet to work together with the Big Five publishers and Amazon. Libraries whose patrons need the most access have the fewest resources to work with, and Michael Blackwell, director at St. Mary's County Library, MD, and longtime e-resources advocate, noted “If we don’t do something about the status quo, digital collections will remain second-rate.” Blackwell spoke up in favor of controlled digital lending, which allows libraries to digitize print materials in their collections and make the e-copy available on the same basis as a print book.

Blackwell discussed the current legislation requiring publishers to agree to equitable ebook licenses—currently signed into law in Maryland, but not in effect owing to an injunction in an ongoing court case brought by publishers, and in various stages of play in New York (recently vetoed by Gov. Kathy Hochul), Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, Tennessee, and Missouri. Alan Inouye, Senior Director of ALA Public Policy and Government Relations, reiterated the importance of state e-content legislation, including the potential for it to lead to federal law. While it’s important to work with state legislators, grassroots support is always valuable, noted Inouye, as is engaging with stakeholders outside the library such as small publishers and vendors. Panelists pointed to several initiatives that offer alternative access, such as the DPLA/Lyrasis joint Palace Project, or the self-published ebook awards offered by the Black Caucus of ALA (BCALA), and resources including libraryfutures.net.

“Libraries and Equitable Broadband Access,” moderated by Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Executive Director John Bracken, featured three library directors—San José’s Jill Bourne, Cleveland’s Felton Thomas, and LVCC's Watson—and the Knight Foundation’s San José Program Director Christopher Thompson to discuss what the digital shift of the past two years looks like in action. In San José, Bourne and her library partnered with the city to circulate 3,000 hotspots through the library and build enough free networks to cover 300,000 residents with outdoor Wi-Fi. But the library still needed to stretch to help drive digital adoption—“those households we’re trying to reach need the in-depth support that libraries can provide,” she said. Digital equity is not a quickly or easily solved problem, added Thomas, not as simple as providing connectivity or devices, and the library needs to take on that role—people “trust us, we have multiple systems for access, and we can give digital literacy help.” Equity work stems from partnerships and collaborations that focus on both delivery and discovery, noted Watson, pointing to his library’s work to provide access on Las Vegas public buses, digital STEAM lab locations in less populated areas, and an upcoming cell phone lending program for people experiencing homelessness.

On the funder side, said Thompson, the challenge is that public libraries have become the service provider of last resort “for everything that’s gone wrong in cities,” and are often not set up to provide the access that users need. “Why are we trying to get people to use PCs when usage is dropping?” he asked, noting that people are accessing services from city job application sites to social media on their phones. “For the majority of communities, we need to be looking forward—following trends in the market, and not the history of our own involvement,” he added, and advised the audience, “When you approach funders, start talking about what you’ve learned—then about what you’re going to do.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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