Is the library e-book question about to heat up? At the recent Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, TX, ALA executive director Keith Fiels and president Molly Raphael informed a meeting of ALA’s Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries that ALA officials had arranged meetings from January 30 to Feb. 1 in New York with publishers currently restricting e-book lending, including Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin. The announcement suggests that at a time when demand is exploding, librarians are determined to push the issue of e-book lending with publishers. As the ALA Midwinter Meeting wound down yesterday, PW caught up with ALA executive director Keith Fiels for an exclusive talk about e-books, and the librarians’ upcoming meetings in New York.

PW: How did these upcoming meetings with publishers over e-books come to pass?

KF: The issue of e-books has really been boiling up over the course of the last year, and I think if you had to say there was something keeping librarians awake at night, this is the issue, and there is a range of aspects to the issue. You have issues with a variety of different formats, technical standards. And, you have issues with just the demand at this point. I still have people approach me and ask how libraries feel about e-books, and well, libraries can’t get enough of them. Which is obviously where the big issue comes up, because you have some publishers that will not make e-books available to libraries, from a triage standpoint. This is a serious issue, and there’s been a lot of interest expressed on part of ALA members that we take a strong stance on this.

Where is the e-book issue on your radar, as executive director of ALA? Are e-books at the top of the list?

Yes, pretty much right at the top. And, I can speak on behalf of ALA president Molly Raphael, and incoming ALA president Maureen Sullivan. Both of them will be at the New York meeting with publishers. It would be nice to leave those meetings with an assurance that the issue will be resolved quickly. At this point we need to be very persistent, and insistent.

How much conversation has there been between ALA and the publishers on e-books?

We had some meetings at last year’s annual conference with some publishers, including HarperCollins, which had just made their famous 26-circulation arrangement available in the spring, and I think that was the beginning of the dialogue. And, we met in the early fall with the AAP. I know you’re aware that both ALA and AAP are subject to restrictions on our involvement in commercial activity because of antitrust, so what we’ve been talking about with AAP is having discussions with individual publishers, because we’re not in a position to have a summit. AAP has been very good about providing us with contact information and suggestions, and, for example, in each of the upcoming meetings with Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, we’re told we will be talking with their CEOs, which we think is really excellent.

In 2011, things seemed to go backwards on the library e-book question. Hachette pulled its frontlist e-books, last January, I think, and last November, Penguin suddenly pulled its new e-books too, without warning.

That’s why we want to talk with Penguin. I think things are moving forward, but those are two very clear instances of backward movement, and we need to discuss it with them. We need to find out if there are reasons behind this that make sense. One of the issues we’ve discussed with AAP is that there is, I think, a general fear of the “Napster-ization” of publishing. But libraries are extremely respectful of law, of intellectual property rights. We know that without respect for intellectual property rights, we wouldn’t have publishing, and the whole system that supports reading and dissemination of knowledge would be damaged. So, that’s one of things we want to talk about—what’s the reasoning here? But let me be clear, when we talk about having a dialogue, it is, 'Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, you need to start making e-books available to libraries. Now, let’s have a dialogue.’

But you’ve had dialogue, and these publishers have said no, right? If a publisher is unwiling to allow library e-book lends, how will you change their minds?

Well, I don’t want to characterize. When we talk about the potential impact of e-books on overall market, I think you’re going to have to have some that embrace opportunity. We can assume not everyone is on the forefront, but I think it is time for those who are not to get with the program. I think Random House has been very forward-thinking, I'm told, and we should applaud them for working with libraries and addressing the issues of equity, and digital access, and really helping to build a culture of readers, and we think that can libraries can have a significant impact in terms of promoting authors, and actually creating an environment in which bestsellers can flourish, because you need a community of readers for these things to happen. And, I think Independent and smaller publishers understand that libraries really do support the vast world of publishing in a manner that is very tangible.

So that’s the carrot—is there a stick? I assume everything has been cordial thus far, and you do have a case to make about library sales, discovery, community, literacy, and access to information. But do you have any leverage?

Let me add something to the positives you just cited: that libraries help make works accessible and available broadly, that, no matter what the circumstances, everyone has access to information resoources. The wealthy may not need a library, they can buy whatever they want, but to the vast majority of people in the middle, and certainly, to the rest of the 99%, libraries play a really important role in creating equitable access. And the decision not to offer equitable access, not to make something available to libraries, is to deny fundamental, basic access to information. So, you asked about the carrot and the stick. I think it is very important to realize that we are not too far from the point where the media is going to figure out that this is an issue. Now, we’re very much eager to do anything we can to facilitate publishers making works available to libraries. But if you want to talk about freedom of access, for a major publisher to make a decision that they will not sell their works to a particular group of individuals, to me, that raises some serious issues. I’m not going to go further than that, other than to say we really need to get this resolved because we don’t want this to be an embarrassment to anyone.

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but are there issues here for lawyers to take up?

At this point, I don’t see legal action as necessary. As I said, I think the press is beginning to figure out that this is an issue, and that public libraries have existed as a major educational force in this country for going on 200 years, and that if you have major publishers that will not make works available to libraries, that is a serious issue.

How important a moment is this? We just saw some astounding numbers in a Pew Report about tablets and e-readers. And, as readers look for e-books from the library and don’t find them, do they risk seeing the library as a relic? As you get ready to meet, is the library e-book discussion at a crucial point?

Yes. I think we’re past that crucial point. I’ve personally worked in resource-sharing for over 30 years, and I feel like we got to a point with things like shared catalogs, and interlibrary loan where, no matter how remote a community or how poor, if someone was really interested in reading something we could get it into their hands really well, and that was a significant development that a lot of people worked on for a long time. So the idea that with e-books we’re at a point where there is now way it can be gotten for you, that you have you have to go buy it, that is just a major step backwards.

Getting reluctant publishers to offer e-books to libraries is of course the major issue, but there others issues too, for example, issues with licensing vs. buying e-books. Do you expect to talk about these issues as well?

I think what we’re going to emphasize is to offer libraries options; options in terms of formats, options in terms of ways works can be acquired. For most libraries, I don’t see licensing as that much of an issue, as long as it is reasonable in terms of cost. But, I do think the issue of permanent access is more complicated than many people might think. Electronic information is not permanent. And libraries have always, and always will play a role in preservation, because libraries care about the permanent preservation of knowledge. You look at things like orphan works, or books published on acid paper, there are major issues with our cultural heritage disintegrating. Is the same thing going to happen with digital? Are publishers going to now be responsible for maintaining permanent electronic access? I don’t think so, because they are forced to pay attention to economic value. I think electronic storage may make some of that easier to do, but changes in format, devices, and changes in infrastructures means that things have to be constantly refreshed. Digital is not a static environment, it is a rapidly changing world of accelerating obsolescence. So, enabling permanent ownership of electronic works by a library might be a good idea if we care about civilization.