In early March, I attended a Digital Public Library of America meeting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I was introduced to Eli Neiburger, associate director for IT & Production at the Ann Arbor District Library—the man famous for his "libraries are so screwed" talk in 2010. What Neiburger told me about the AADL's innovative, analytical, and provocative approach to e-books and next generation library service intrigued me, so I caught up over e-mail with Neiburger and AADL director Josie Parker, to find out more.

Peter Brantley: Can you tell me a little bit about the Ann Arbor district?

Josie Parker: AADL is an independent public library with a dedicated property tax millage and an elected board, with a defined service area of 165,000 across 6 municipalities. We have 5 locations including 3 new destination branches opened since 2004.

Eli Neiburger: University of Michigan faculty, staff, and alumni make up a large percentage of our cardholders, making for an unusually well-educated user base. At the same time, the Ann Arbor area has a more economically and ethnically diverse community than others of its size, meaning that AADL experiences pretty deep and widespread demand for all types of media and services.

For legacy media, does a library like yours typically see more checkouts of print books, DVDs, or games?

JP: 2010-2011 was the first fiscal year where we saw slightly more AV checkouts than Print checkouts. Our data shows that adult book checkouts peaked here in 2009, although the numbers per capita are still very high. Blu-ray is our fastest growing collection, in terms of use.

EN: Games are an interesting issue, because despite being a leader in the use of videogames in libraries, we don’t have a circulating videogame collection, and have no plans to start one. That’s an industry that is increasingly leaving physical media behind completely—many of the most interesting and fun new games are not available except as downloads, and that simply prevents a public library from getting involved with distribution. We’ve found that we can reach more library users for the dollar, and give them a more unique experience than just alternate access to commercial media, by putting funds into gaming events and related experiences rather than circulating collections.

Eli, you have given talks suggesting that it would be difficult for libraries to effectively serve e-books to patrons because of technical and policy issues. Can you recap those?

EN: Technically, the biggest issue is the current expectation of DRM infrastructure as a requirement to serve digital content. As we’ve seen in other media, DRM is a transitional technology that falls away as markets mature and leadership turns over. Investing in technology that has the sole purpose of restricting access to information is not a good use of public money. We’ve been able to negotiate licenses that embrace the potential of digital media instead of restraining it, and with progressive rightsholders, it can be a win for the publisher, the library user, and the library. If a publisher is willing to make a deal with us on an annual license that allows us to distribute their e-books (or other files) direct to our authenticated cardholders, without DRM or use limits, that's a model we can get behind. That’s a premium license, and we would expect to be quoted an appropriate price.

JP: The policy issues aren’t our policy issues—the vendors’ policies are simply more restrictive on digital materials than we have set on physical materials. We’re not willing to take that step backwards. We haven’t had checkout or request limits here in over a decade, and we’re not about to apply them to the digital world.

Ann Arbor is not a (major) customer of OverDrive or other e-book services. How did you come to that decision, and has there been any push back to it?

JP: The products that are available simply don’t meet our service standard, and they’d be a step back from the convenience and flexibility we offer with physical items. There has been no pushback from our public, but there is always pressure from vendors. We make a minimum investment in the standard e-book platforms so that we have something for those who are interested. But we have chosen against a significant investment in e-books.

EN: Part of the reason we’re not seeing much demand for e-book checkouts is that, contrary to publisher fears, going big on borrowing hasn’t stopped this community from going big on buying. In 2010, AADL had the most circulation transactions per capita in the U.S. for a library in our budget category. That same year Ann Arbor was in Amazon’s top 5 markets for purchasing per capita. Our users check out and buy the hot stuff, for sure, but we mostly hear that they want us to have the stuff they can’t get on Netflix streaming, or in the Kindle store. There’s plenty of long tail to go around.

If fixed cost e-books for libraries are taken off the table, do you think there is still a role for local libraries in providing access to e-books in a pay-per-use model?

JP: Certainly, if the cost model is sustainable for libraries. The per-use prices we’re seeing now are not sustainable, making libraries victims of our own success. Public institutions can’t budget for runaway demand and pay for every use. We need to be able to know our annual expenses in advance without having to cut people off. That makes no sense in the digital world, and patrons know it.

EN: We are interested in paying up front for a license to distribute content to our cardholders, and we don’t expect that license to be forever unlimited. But we see a model where unlimited distribution is purchased for a closed term, meaning pay per year, not pay per use. That’s sustainable for public, fixed-revenue institutions but still offers the benefits of digital distribution. It’s also nothing new to libraries; but it is new to recreational content. It also makes for some dependable, recurring big checks for publishers and rightsholders, instead of an unknown amount of tiny payments.

Do you see e-books evolving over time, and if so, do you think those changes make it more or less easy for libraries to re-enter the lending market in the future?

EN: E-books as we know them now are certainly a transitional technology, and as we see new features emerging in enhanced e-books, they just look more and more like the Web. The future of e-books is the past of the web, huh? Alongside this, the growing success of below-impulse pricing and the abundant supply of free bits out there makes paying real money for a download a pretty hard sell for natives of this century—they find the notion of “borrowing” a digital file nonsensical at best. The lending market for digital objects is a vestigial business model already, and it’s not very likely the evolution of e-books is going to lead them to be more like their physical forbears.

Do you think it is useful for organizations like ALA to pursue Congressional hearings, litigation, or copyright changes that would clarify the rights of libraries to provide access, and compel publishers to continue to serve them?

JP: It’s important that someone pursue changes in copyright that allow libraries to collect and distribute digital information. But do we really want to have to compel business? What do you get in a business arrangement, when the seller is compelled to do business with a buyer? Case in point, Random House’s recent price increases. If you’re going to compel somebody to do business with you, they’re going to charge you what they want to charge you.

Some people are concerned that if libraries exit the market, or are forced to exit the market, for e-book access, that there will be no place where e-books are preserved for posterity. How do you think that might be addressed?

JP: It’s not really our problem. Public libraries have never been an important part of that for commercial books. But locally-oriented books are important to public libraries, and I’d hope that community libraries would make finding a way to preserve digital works by or about their communities a priority.

EN: You’d think that this would be a job for the Library of Congress. Going digital almost makes the deposit copy rule practical again. That said, I think in this century, keeping something off the net is going to be a lot harder than keeping something on the net.

There have been suggestions from some public librarians that the Digital Public Library of America should step in and provide a national infrastructure for serving current commercial e-books to library customers. Do you think that is a useful approach?

JP: It would behoove the steering committee of the DPLA to say, categorically, that this is not what they’re going to do, and then move on to what they are going to do.

As a consumer, given the mix of affordances and restrictions that e-books present, do you see a place in the market for both e-book rentals and purchases?

JP: No, rental is not a practical model for our library system and our users. Library budgets work when they can plan spending annually, and the per-use cost to the library drops with use. Libraries don’t work as a subsidized pass-through.

EN: It seems that the library market is about the only place that publishers feel they have some power to set terms right now, so we’re bearing the brunt of boardroom anxiety. But we know in libraries that our superusers are also publishing’s best customers, and that borrowing does not supplant buying, no matter the relative friction. It’s up to libraries to make deals that make sense for their communities and move the relationships with rightsholders forward, towards greater value and sustainability, not to chase the shiny thing and assume it leads to the future.