Attendance dipped to its lowest level in a decade and traffic on the show floor was noticeably slow, but last week's 2011 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in San Diego, Calif., was anything but quiet. Between the usual slate of committee meetings, author events, and other association business, librarians discussed a rapidly evolving consumer e-book market and bleak budgets, and braced for a period of uncertainty—uncertainty that even extended to the future of the Midwinter Meeting itself.
ALA officials reported total attendance (librarians and exhibitors) of 10,110—down from the 11,095 who attended last year's meeting in Boston, but certainly a respectable showing considering the lingering recession. The attendance dip also comes as more ALA committee business is conducted virtually, a trend that led to an ALA white paper addressing "the continuing viability" of the Midwinter Meeting for discussion by the ALA executive council. While ALA management said in a statement that it believed major changes were not necessary, it conceded that the show must be "repositioned" to reflect new realities, economic and technological. "There is no question that the current recession and changes that are occurring in the nature of communication are going to affect the Midwinter Meeting," the white paper states. "We need to look critically at our current policies and the purpose of the meeting, in order to make sure it continues to serve the Association and its members."
In addition to committee work, attendees also enjoyed a great program of speakers: actor and ocean activist Ted Danson, an author of the forthcoming book Oceana, delivered the keynote at the President's Program. Neil Gaiman chatted with Nancy Pearl (who was also honored as Library Journal's Librarian of the Year) about Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, the first-ever book to win both Newbery and Car-negie Medals. And the ALA/ERT/Booklist Author forum featured David Levithan (Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist), Stewart O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying), Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City series) and Susan Vreeland (Luncheon of the Boating Party). Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, delivered the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture.
The good news is that library budgets held up better than expected in 2010. In 2011, however, librarians say they fear deep cuts could come to both staff and collections budgets. Still suffering through the worst recession since the 1930s, nearly every state is expecting greater budget shortfalls this year. As if to underscore the dire situation, newly elected governor Jerry Brown unveiled the California state budget during the show—if passed, the plan would delete roughly $30 million in public library funding, prompting a response from ALA president Roberta Stevens. "We understand that state and local governments must make difficult decisions," Stevens said. "But eliminating critical funding needed to sustain library service is not the answer."
In Washington, library community concerns can be summarized in two words: Tea Party. With a new Congress swept into office on a wave of "small government" fiscal conservatism, federal funding for libraries could be on the line. But in a stirring call to action, ALA's Washington office director, Emily Sheketoff, rallied librarians to reach out to their representatives. "There are over 80 new members in the House and the Senate, and many of them have never been in politics," Sheketoff said. "They talk about taking back America, but they don't really know what that means. It is up to us to tell them what it means. Eliminating the debt is all well and good, but you can't eliminate it by eliminating the democratic institutions that have made our country great, and number one is the library."
Libraries have helped pave the way for e-books, but now that the consumer market for e-books has taken off, are public libraries in danger of being marginalized? A standing-room-only panel looked at the challenges—and opportunities—for e-books in libraries. The panel featured Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive founder and digital librarian; Sue Polanka, head of reference and instruction at Wright State University and author of the e-book blog No Shelf Required; and Tom Peters, CEO of TAP Information Services.
The e-book market is "going bananas," Polanka observed, "and it is leaving us behind." Although upbeat about the potential of e-books in libraries, Polanka bemoaned the restrictions on e-books that inhibit access and have hampered discoverability, and urged more dialogue with publishers and vendors. For his part, Peters spoke of a digital reading and mobile device revolution that held consequences for the entire supply chain, suggesting e-books would evolve in ways we've yet to imagine. In a q&a period, other librarians questioned whether e-books would become a licensed access world, like academic journals. They talked about the benefits of broader access, and access for the print disabled afforded by e-books. And they spoke of surging user demand that points to 2011 as being a watershed year for e-books in libraries.
Sarah Rosenblum, a librarian from Hennepin County in Minnesota, told PW that in 2010 her library system spent $35,000 on e-books. In 2011, they plan to spend $350,000. She said the expansion was based on "the overwhelming success" of the system's first foray into service, powered by vendor OverDrive. While $350,000 is still a small percentage of the system's $8 million materials budget, Rosenblum said that she would not be surprised if e-books accounted for 30% to 50% of the library's book budget within the next five to 10 years, as consumer demand grows.
All of which makes Brewster Kahle's concerns about the developing e-book market resonant. Kahle, who founded the Open Content Alliance and the Open Library digitization program, offered a strong message to librarians: don't let a few powerful players take control of the digital future. He urged libraries not to give up their traditional roles. "What libraries do is buy stuff and lend it out," he said, suggesting that libraries should "digitize what we have to, and buy what we can," but not to let the promise of licensed, managed e-book access turn libraries into agents for a few major corporations. "We do so at our peril."
Indeed, in recent weeks and days, the e-book market has seen a flurry of activity that could greatly change the scope of e-books in libraries. EBSCO has acquired NetLibrary; ProQuest acquired ebrary; OverDrive seems to be powering most public library e-book lending programs; and at the show, Oxford University Press announced it was making its popular Oxford Scholarship Online platform available to host other university press e-book content. E-reading devices and tablets are surging as well, and, of course, in December Google launched its cloud-based Google eBooks, and Kindle unveiled its new, more open platform.
Questions loom, however, about the extent to which publishers will accommodate library wants and needs in the consumer e-book realm. "It is something librarians and publishers need to grapple with," Rosenblum told PW. "We've had interesting relationships with publishers. Sometimes they seem to focus more on the fact that we lend out the books we buy rather than the fact that we buy books, thousands and thousands of books."