Becoming Proactive: Taking the E-Book Initiative

by Marcia Warner
Originally published in PLA Daily News, April 14, 2012

Maneuvering the e-book market for public libraries is like driving a mountain road—exhilarating with the possibility of where we’re headed, but daunting with twists and turns along the way. It doesn’t help that it often feels like we’re driving without a map and reacting to contradictory road signs. The American Library Association (ALA) and the Public Library Association (PLA), along with some innovative thinkers in the public library world, are doing their best to change that.

The Landscape

Looking out the window of our moving car, there’s a lot to see—one in six Americans using e-reader devices (2011); 67.2 percent of libraries offering access to e-books (fall 2010); and patrons checking out 35 million digital titles through Overdrive. It’s a fast-growing market with libraries like yours at the center of purchasing, lending, and educating.

Because the environment is changing so rapidly, it seems many decisions and protocols have been made in reaction to a distributor’s model, a publisher’s practice, or a patron’s demand. Indeed the publisher/vendor/library relationship in light of e-books has become a very uncertain place—sometimes reassuringly familiar, sometimes surprisingly mercurial, and sometimes disturbingly quiet. And that’s resulted in frustration among libraries wanting to fulfill their mission—free access for all—and desiring the recognition that they are not just passengers in the market of e-books, but are, in fact, drivers with the purchasing power and the end-customer connections to make a difference.

Drawing the Map

To bring libraries to the forefront of the e-book marketplace, ALA leadership under president Molly Raphael initiated an open dialogue with publishers and vendors and established a member-based Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG). The group is actively searching for solutions for a sustainable path forward for e-book access through libraries. PLA has a prominent role with Sari Feldman, PLA past-president and director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library serving as co-chair, and the appointments of  PLA leaders, members and public librarians, including: Vailey Oehlke, PLA board member and director of Libraries, Multnomah County (Ore.) Library; Simon Healey, librarian II, Government Publications Department, Free Library of Philadelphia (Pa.); Jamie LaRue, director, Douglas County (Colo.) Public Library; Robert Maier, director, Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners; and Charlie Parker, director, Tampa Bay (Fla.) Library Consortium.

The DCWG is working to strengthen relationships among libraries, publishers, and distributers by opening lines of communication and emphasizing how the needs of libraries connect directly to their communities. The working group is committed to addressing the entire digital content picture, including distribution, accessibility, privacy and ethics, and public outreach.

Taking the Wheel

Library and patron access to e-books is critically important. While it’s reassuring to know that ALA and PLA are tackling the issue on a larger scale, libraries ask, “Great, but what can we do?” When the stakes are so high, going beyond service and operations to the mission of the public library, it’s difficult to not take action.

Help build the e-book roadmap for your library:

  1. Stay informed. Since the publisher/vendor environment changes so rapidly, be sure to keep an eye out for decisions that will impact your library. Read the “eContent” blog on; follow and comment on posts in the DCWG group node on ALA Connect; and keep an eye out for PLA and ALA updates via newsletters, facebook, twitter, and more
  2. Negotiate! As the rules shift and change, librarians must be critical consumers. More than ever, we must ask questions, seek clarity on vague language, challenge contract terms, and bargain for the best terms for our libraries and our users.
  3. Communicate. Let your patrons know why you can’t provide all the e-books they want. You’ll increase their knowledge of the situation and possibly develop some new advocates.
  4. Think outside the box when it comes to meeting your community’s digital content needs. There are libraries redefining their e-book business model by partnering with independent publishers, establishing consortiums, etc. Let your colleagues inspire you. Visit to read peer-written articles about real-life e-book practices.
  5. Learn more at one of these PLA Programs:
    1. Getting eContent to your Customers: Challenges, Best Practices and Solutions — Thursday, March 15, 8:15–9:30 a.m., PCC 122-A/B
    2. ConverStation: The State of Ebooks in Public Libraries and Publishing — Friday, March 16, 2:00–3:15 p.m., PCC 111-B
    3. The PLA Unconference — Friday, March 16, 12:30–3:30 p.m., PCC 122-A/B

To best serve their patrons, libraries have consistently proven that they are flexible and adaptable institutions. While the e-book issue presents challenges, it can be viewed as just another catalyst in a long line of many that will drive change and innovation and further advance the library’s place in tomorrow’s communities.