Do Libraries Have a Future?

As books become e-books, publishers seem happy to cut libraries out of the picture

Loading the podcast player...

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Back in September, Maureen Sullivan, the president of the American Library Association, fired off an open letter to U.S. book publishers. In it, she wrote:

It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is “no good here.” Surprisingly, after centuries of enthusiastically supporting publishers’ products, libraries find themselves in just that position with purchasing e-books from three of the largest publishers in the world. Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin have been denying access to their e-books for our nation’s 112 000 libraries and roughly 169 million public library users.

The 2013 winter meeting of the ALA begins on January 25. Needless to say, e-books will be a big topic there, and I thought we’d talk to her today to see if anything has changed since September and what’s likely to transpire at the meeting.

Maureen Sullivan worked in the library systems at the University of Maryland and at Yale University for over 20 12 years. She’s now an independent consultant for libraries and other information organizations. In addition to being the current president of the ALA, she’s a past president of the Association of College and Research Libraries. She joins us by phone.

Maureen, welcome to the podcast.

Maureen Sullivan: Thank you.

Steven Cherry: Maureen, let’s first set the context. Quite a few publishers make their e-books available. How does it work? And I’ll give you two scenarios: In one I plan to read the book on my aging Dell computer at home, and on the other I plan to read it on my smartphone. How do I check the book out?

Maureen Sullivan: There are a variety of ways which this can happen, and you’ve cited two of them—that the user can download on the smartphone or actually download on their computer at home. And the ability to do either of those or take advantage of other methods really depends upon the device the person is using, but also what that library is able to do.

Steven Cherry: Now, when I buy an e-book from Amazon, or from Apple or Barnes & Noble, there are digital protections in place. I can’t just make copies at will and give them to my friends, but I can read it on both my aging Dell computer and my smartphone. Can I do that with the e-book I check out of the library?

Maureen Sullivan: Not necessarily, because the different publishers place restrictions on what the library can purchase, as you pointed out earlier. But then there are also restrictions that are in licensing agreements as to what we’re able to do in making that material available.

Steven Cherry: Earlier last year, Random House instituted a rule that libraries would have to buy a new copy once a book bought from them had been checked out a certain number of times, and that number is 26. So I guess the library has to buy a new copy every year or two if the book is fairly popular.

Maureen Sullivan: And that’s what we’ve come to call the HarperCollins model. And when HarperCollins first introduced this arrangement, it produced a hue and cry in the field. But as we’ve been working in that model, we’ve discovered that there are items for which that actually works. In other words, there would not be circulation that would go beyond the 26 limit that they have, and the need to purchase another one after that limit works in some cases. But the other big issue that libraries are facing around this is budgets for the purchase of new materials are not increasing. And one of the serious problems beyond there are places where we have trouble getting the e-book, is the fact that there is differential pricing, and the price tends to be much higher for e-books when they’re selling to a library.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I wanted to get to that. There was a good article about this in the Huffington Post, and it gave as an example the book Cloud Atlas, on which the 2012 movie was based. The book was republished in 2012 at $11.99, but libraries had to pay $45?

Maureen Sullivan: Yeah, and in some cases the difference goes up as high as $70 or $80. And you can imagine with a fixed book budget, as well as a fixed library budget, if we have to pay higher prices in order to meet that demand, for that book to be available in the e-book format, it’s limiting the number of titles that we can purchase.

Steven Cherry: Now, this is all quite different from the way things worked when libraries only had to buy physical books. In the case of that “26 times” downloading rule, for example, for physical books something called the “first-sale doctrine” was involved. What is that, and why doesn’t that work with e-books?

Maureen Sullivan: Well, the first-sale doctrine is a really important principle to us because it means when you have purchased the item, it is yours, and with some licensing agreements that is not the case. In other words, the licensing agreement could require that after a certain period of time, the content disappears, after a certain number of uses, as you’ve already pointed out, the content is no longer available.

Steven Cherry: And actually, consumers, I guess, sometimes encounter this problem themselves when, you know, a physical book, you could lend it to a friend, you could lend it to several different friends sequentially, you could sell it, or just give it to somebody else. And none of that is easy, or in some cases possible, with e-books. Now, I guess this is all in addition to the problem that we started the show with, which is that a lot of books aren’t available at any price. That same Huffington Post article cited a report by the Douglas County libraries in Colorado and found that out of a USA Today bestseller list, none of the top-five books was available to libraries. Shouldn’t we be surprised by that?

Maureen Sullivan: Well, we in the library field were not surprised by it because we’ve been monitoring what’s been going on. My guess is that many people in the general public would be surprised by that because most of us who understand what libraries are about know that libraries are a key source of reading material, books, and content in whatever form, and they’re really important resources in communities, particularly where some of the individuals living in those communities don’t have the resources to acquire or amass large book collections. And we also have the reader who uses the library because it’s a means to discover new authors, to discover new areas of interest.

Steven Cherry: And I guess besides the cost savings when a person checks out a bestseller from the library, there are plenty of towns in the U.S. and elsewhere that don’t have bookstores at all, and it’s not a simple matter to get your hands on a bestseller.

Maureen Sullivan: Right, and there actually have been some stories where libraries are actually starting to fulfill the role of the bookstore, sometimes making available used books, and a lot of, particularly in public libraries, there are a number of libraries that have friends groups that have used the sale of used books as a means for raising money.

In some cases, they’re now becoming community resources for people who want to own books. And that’s something else that not everyone comes to understand, is that readers have a variety of different preferences. There are readers who want to borrow from the library and then will go out and buy the book they’ve just bought.

Steven Cherry: So all of these problems—books not available to libraries at all, books only available to libraries at a much higher price, books available to libraries only for a limited number of checkouts—is there anything that libraries can do about this other than write outraged letters to the publishers themselves?

Maureen Sullivan: What we’ve chosen to do is to engage with the publishers to help them understand the ramifications of the postures that they’re taking. And we’ve had to deal especially with the big six publishers, and you mentioned a number of them at the start of the call. We’ve had to deal with them one on one, although I and my predecessor, Molly Raphael, have had meetings with the American Association of Publishers [Association of American Publishers], which brings them together. But they have to be very careful about the kind of information that they’re exchanging. So we’ve chosen to build a relationship for that understanding, and one of the things that has benefitted us in engaging with the publishers is to understand more about their situation.

We also are taking advantage of every opportunity, both to the AAP and to individual publishers, to have them understand why it’s so important to make their lists available to libraries. And I might point out another element in this is [that] some of the publishers will make their backlist items available but not the front list. And we believe that one of the things they struggle with is a fear that if they’re selling to us, and we’re then lending, that they’re losing money. But what we’re actually finding, as we begin to look at patterns, is that a number of our readers, as I’ve already indicated, will borrow the book but then will go ahead and purchase. And libraries are good customers of publishers, and libraries are often the first point where the authors that are represented by the publishers are introduced to readers.

Steven Cherry: So what’s going to happen at the winter meeting?

Maureen Sullivan: Well, you were correct in your introduction that one of the big issues is the whole question of e-books. We have several programs on that because we are committed to continuing to inform our members about these issues. We also traditionally have a number of authors that come and give presentations, and we have a large trade show where the publishers are there making their new publications available to librarians, and in particular librarians who select books in whatever form they might be available.

Steven Cherry: You know, I’m wondering in that world of the future, Google, which has already scanned a substantial portion of the books that have ever been published that are still around, and they’ve done this with the help of several key libraries, by the way . . . supposing there’s a world in which Google has pretty much every book that’s been published, and with publishers withholding from libraries the front list, and with Google making available, in some cases for free and in others at presumably a pretty low cost, the backlist, what’s left for libraries?

Maureen Sullivan: First I want to say that I don’t think that future is going to emerge because I think the publishers are going to understand the importance of returning to a time where they’re working with us to ensure that e-books as well as print books are available.

But I also think that where we’re headed is that libraries are increasingly becoming more than the collection of books. They’re resource centers; they’re a place where anyone in the community can come in and get the information that they need. And I interviewed Peter Block, who was one of our program speakers at midwinter. He’s the author of a book called Community: The Structure of Belonging, and I was quite taken aback when he said to me he thinks of the library in his community as being distinctive because they’re more than a place or a space. They are a mind-set, and they are an aesthetic presence in the community. And he also pointed out that as he visits libraries and uses his library, what he really appreciates is that people come into the library from across the socioeconomic strata in the community. And the way he put it was, “It’s the one place where I can go and know that I can find people representing different parts of the community.”

Steven Cherry: Maureen, I have to say I agree with you and Mr. Block. When I was about 10 years old, a librarian at my local library found me hiding in the stacks downstairs where the grown-up books were. I was reading a book of Edgar Allan Poe short stories, and I thought for sure she was going to chase me upstairs to the children’s section, but instead she looked at the book and said, “I guess we better get you an adult card.” And when I go back to that same library today, it has books in at least six languages, the stacks are just as friendly, and I guess I have the fantasy that my grandchildren will someday be able to lose themselves in a book there—maybe the same book, but in digital form possibly. So good luck to you for all our sakes, and thanks for joining us today.

Maureen Sullivan: Thank you very much.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Maureen Sullivan about the future of libraries in a world where books are becoming e-books and publishers seem happy to go it alone, without library sales.

For IEEE Spectrum’s Techwise Conversations, I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 17 January 2013.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Read more “Techwise Conversations or follow us on Twitter.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.