It was an upbeat annual conference for the American Library Association in Anaheim, Calif., highlighted by the awarding of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, the ALA’s first-ever book award for adult fiction and nonfiction. But with the release of a new Pew report and a pilot project announced by Penguin, the issue of library e-book lending loomed large over the meeting.

Anecdotally, librarians and publishers had high praise for the conference, which featured a strong slate of authors and speakers. By the numbers, however, the meeting was a more modest affair. ALA officials reported 20,134 attended the conference, roughly flat with the 20,125 in New Orleans last year. Still, given the fiscal straits facing many libraries and that attendance always dips when the meeting is on the West Coast, not a bad showing. The good news: the show returns to Chicago next year, where a record-setting 29,000 attended in 2009.


Although e-book lending was certain to be a topic of conversation at the conference, it was made even more relevant with two new developments—an announcement by Penguin of a new e-book pilot project with the New York Public Library, and a report on libraries and e-books from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The Penguin news certainly added a buzz to the conference. Under its pilot with vendor 3M, Penguin plans to make its e-books available to NYPL and the Brooklyn Public Library (Queens is also hoping to participate) for a year, with a few notable restrictions—current titles would be embargoed for six months, and books would expire after one year. While the official ALA line hailed the move as “an important development,” librarians on the show floor were less enthused about the program’s proposed restrictions.

The Pew report, meanwhile, was welcomed by librarians for offering something much needed: data. “The new report underscores that libraries continue to be a vital part of people’s lives in the digital age,” said ALA president Molly Raphael. “The double and triple-digit growth libraries have reported in demand for e-books, desire for access to e-book readers, and requests for e-book reader assistance and classes clearly express a hunger for these services.” The report, however, also “flags issues that demand attention,” she added. “Libraries cannot lend what they cannot obtain.”

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, hosted a 90-minute session in Anaheim worthy of a keynote—engaging, and laden with meaty data about people’s digital behavior. He also said that Pew, with support from the Gates Foundation, would conduct further study on the “evolving role of libraries” in the coming months.

"E-reading is taking off because e-reading gadgets are taking off," Rainie said, yet “the gadget doesn’t make the reader.” In fact, Pew data shows e-book readers are not “format snobs” and happily use digital, print, and audio.

Rainie also emphasized that library e-book borrowing has gained a foothold, even though just 12% of adult e-book readers say they have borrowed an e-book from a library in the past year, and 62% said they did not know their library even offered e-books. E-book borrowing clearly holds a “whopping upside,” Rainie said, adding that the Pew data showed library users are big book buyers.

The major publishers, of course, are not quite convinced. In a session updating efforts of the ALA’s Working Group on Digital Content, co-chairs Robert Wolven (Columbia University), and Sari Feldman (Cuyahoga County Public Library) reported that talks with the big six houses were ongoing and urged patience. But in the q&a period, a librarian from Sweden stirred the pot when she noted that in Sweden, librarians had just left the table, breaking off negotiations with Swedish publishers without an agreement over e-books.

Another questioner asked what was so bad about incorporating “friction” into e-lending models, as publishers desire, for example making patrons physically come to the library to download e-books? “Nothing at all,” replied Gluejar’s Eric Hellman, “except people are not stupid.” He later clarified that remark, explaining that e-book readers understand that e-books are different from print books, and library patrons have a right to expect all the convenience and benefits of e-books, rather than be saddled with artificial, analogue-era restrictions.

The Internet Archive’s Peter Brantley (a PW contributing editor) urged librarians to remain focused on the bigger picture—not just the current discussions with the big six. He said librarians must not be passive—more than just saying what they won’t accept, he said, “I would like to see us be more active in defining the conversation.”

He also cautioned that the issue is bigger than the big six, or the smaller indie publishers libraries have successfully worked with. The e-book market is Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Rakutan, Google, Microsoft, he noted, and includes a “burst of independently published e-books” that libraries have no way to get. “The e-book universe is flattening and getting ever more diverse,” he cautioned. “I would not like to see a world of e-books fractionated across vendors, where Amazon has some stuff, and B&N has some stuff that no one else has.”

He also reminded libraries that publishers were not the only way to get to e-books—authors, for example, are also in the mix. He urged libraries to “engage with authors about shaping contracts with publishers that might benefit libraries: “All we tend to think about are the rights given to us by publishers, but that’s not all the world.”

Panels and Awards

By most accounts, the Auditorium Speaker Series was one of the best in years, featuring a vibrant mix of forward-looking thinkers and legendary figures, including journalist Rebecca MacKinnon, Internet philosopher David Weinberger, literary heavyweight John Irving, and veteran news anchor Dan Rather.

While e-book lending grabbed the headlines, MacKinnon kicked off ALA by addressing an often overlooked aspect of the digital revolution: privacy and censorship issues. A former bureau chief for CNN in Beijing and author of Consent of the Networked (Basic Books, Jan. 2012), MacKinnon asked librarians to consider to what extent technology can be apolitical. “The relationship between citizens and government is increasingly mediated through the Internet,” she explained, “so, how do we ensure this layer of technology we depend upon for our business, our education, our love lives, and our political lives remains neutral?”

John Irving captivated a standing-room-only auditorium. Before reading a passage from his latest novel, In One Person (S&S), which tells the story of a bisexual man whose first crush is on his town’s transgender librarian, Irving answered questions e-mailed by readers: Have you ever had sex with a man? “Not knowingly,” Irving replied. He gave the rapt audience a rare glimpse into one of our most popular writers. “[In One Person] isn’t the first novel I’ve written about sexual misfits,” Irving said. “I think all writers are attracted to outsiders, because that’s who we are.”

Perhaps the most anticipated program of the conference, however, came Sunday night, at a reception emceed by Seattle librarian (and PW columnist) Nancy Pearl, where the first-ever Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence went to Irish novelist Anne Enright for her novel The Forgotten Waltz (W.W. Norton) and Robert K. Massie, in nonfiction, for Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House).

Although neither winner could attend, all of the six finalists submitted warm remarks about the award and about libraries. James Gleick, nominated for The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon), delivered his in person, as did Russell Banks, nominated for Lost Memory of Skin (Ecco). Sadly, Manning Marable, nominated for Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking), died on April 1, 2011. Marable’s editor, Kevin Doughten, stood in with an emotional tribute. Fiction finalist Karen Russell, nominated for Swamplandia! (Knopf), thanked librarians with a charming video from her hotel room in Germany, telling the crowd she wrote the book largely at the New York Public Library.

Banks, however, offered the most stirring words of the night. He said his nomination was an honor because the award was “authenticated” by librarians,”and he called libraries “the connecting tissue between writers and the world,” more so than bookstores, reviewers and critics, or academia. “Even more,” he said “than publishers themselves," as much as he professed to like his own publisher and editor.

Chartered with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, hopes are that the Carnegie Medals will grow in stature to that of the ALA’s Youth Media Awards, where the Newbery and Caldecott are the most prestigious for children’s books—and may be the most commercially influential of any book award. Toward that goal, ALA executive director Keith Fiels said the Carnegie Corporation has vested the award with something more valuable than its money—the Carnegie name.