Judging by the crowded sessions at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting last January in Seattle, e-books remain the most contested topic among public librarians.

It’s not just who is in, who is out (which publishers are licensing to libraries), it’s also the chaotic pricing. A title may come on the market at $84, then at some point drop to $45. Occasionally, vendors will announce “pop-up” sales, offering steep discounts on selected titles for a brief period. Like stockbrokers, acquisition librarians these days need running feeds on their desktops, reporting the fluctuating prices of popular titles. “Grisham’s The Litigators down to $29? I’m in for 14!”

Underneath the acquisitions hoopla is the gnawing anxiety that libraries don’t own the content they are paying for, whatever some publishers may say. There is also the growing concern that e-book pricing is eroding the buying power of libraries: an $85 e-book price point means less of everything, books and media, and as a result some libraries are starting to see an overall decline in circulation. Many librarians have reported pulling back from e-book ordering recently, and have begun investing that money into print again, looking for that bigger circulation bang.

Into this fray rides Jamie LaRue, director of Colorado’s Douglas County Libraries (DCL), with a much-discussed e-book strategy for libraries that is bold, innovative, and well developed—and one that restores a measure of pride to a profession feeling pretty bruised.

LaRue held librarians enthralled at two different sessions at ALA Midwinter, and libraries across the country are taking notice; the Califa Group, California’s largest library consortium, is adopting his model. But, as a public library director myself, I’m still left to wonder: in moving ahead with a new e-book model, could LaRue be pushing library collections backward?

Infrastructure First

Serving an affluent, totally wired population of 300,000, the seven-branch DCL system was ripe for e-book experimentation. Well funded—with a materials budget of $3.3 million—the library was an early adopter of e-books, and remains both an Overdrive and 3M customer. Furthermore, DCL has LaRue, an entrepreneurial director, who has assembled a like-minded team.

So when the e-book drama with libraries began, LaRue went to his board and got its blessing to invest in the technology and software for DCL to host its own e-book platform. The library system acquired an Adobe Content Server, a MySQL server, and VuFind, a discovery layer that provides a unified, simplified front end, serving up results from the catalogue and the e-book collections in one user-friendly set.

By 2011, the infrastructure was in place, and DCL was ready to acquire content—but what content? Today, DCL spends over $700,000 a year on e-books, a considerable portion of which goes to publishers other than the big six. Under associate director Rochelle Logan, the library is acquiring e-books from over 800 publishers, including some midsized but mostly small and regional presses. And, to me, therein lies a problem. To support its idealistic e-book strategy, is DCL reduced to acquiring books that, frankly, will interest few readers—digital versions of what librarians kindly call shelf-sitters?

This is not meant to disparage small presses or the value of their publications. But it is unusual for a public library to fill its catalogue with material that the public hasn’t requested and that will likely provide limited return on investment. For the more popular titles that are available, DCL is still a customer of Overdrive and 3M. But LaRue says he won’t buy an e-book that costs more than $50, although he admits he gets plenty of pressure from staff to do so.

So, what would LaRue say to an avid e-book reader who can’t borrow a copy of Jonathan Kellerman’s Guilt?

“There are the economics that constrain our purchasing power,” says LaRue. “At the same time, there is an explosion in publishing. We urge you to start exploring similar kinds of authors [whose books] we can provide in far greater variety and number. Or, check it out in print.”

Balancing Act

That strategy seems to represent a new chapter in a debate public librarians in America have had for 150 years: should we be providing our readers with the material they want, or should we be providing books we think they should read? Because, however noble DCL’s motivation is for its model, when it comes to e-books, the system is pushing its patrons to read something other than what they want to read. It’s back to the 19th century, Kindle in hand.

Of course, in DCL’s defense, much of this is out of its hands: only two of the big six offer their full catalogues to libraries, and in those cases they do so under lending restrictions, or very high prices. “We can’t be held hostage to vendors,” LaRue says, and “ownership” of the libraries’ content is the bedrock of DCL’s model.

But at this moment in nascent e-book history, is “ownership” really so vital? Is it really practical for public libraries to try to reform the publishing business by rerouting our patron demand? Or do we risk losing patrons dissatisfied with our digital offerings?

It is a complex question. I believe that part of the promise of digital content for libraries lies in experimentation, and that the ownership model, necessary for research libraries, may not suit public library needs any longer. Shouldn’t public library collections be dynamic and ever-changing? Does any public library really need to own an e-book it plans to discard in three years? Or 48 digital copies of Gone Girl?

One of the great opportunities for public libraries in the digital world is that they should be able to continuously recreate their collections, at a reasonable cost—without the expense of housing, materials handling, weeding, and discarding.

LaRue concedes he would entertain other ways to do business—like pay per use—provided he could still purchase copies for his “long-tail” catalogue. “But,” he adds, “that model doesn’t exist.” In a world where a digital copy of a book can be acquired in minutes, however, doesn’t the long-tail catalogue get to be pretty short?

The Self-Publishing Solution

To bolster its e-book holdings, in early 2013 DCL brokered a much-talked-about deal with Smashwords, the largest distributor of self-published e-books. For $40,000, DCL acquired 10,000 Smashwords titles. But the deal with Smashwords isn’t just an attempt to solve the e-book problem; it’s also an attempt to solve the libraries’ self-publishing problem.

Self-publishing is clearly surging, but so far, libraries have been standing on the sidelines, doing little. For starters, self-published material exists largely outside of regular distribution channels, and who has the staff to wade through the morass of self-publishing and cull the best works? The few titles that did make it onto library shelves—like Fifty Shades of Grey—were bought in print, in response to public demand.

It doesn’t take a literary critic to see that there is a real range in the quality of Smashwords titles. “I think of it like this,” LaRue says. “Sixteen Smashwords authors were on the New York Times bestseller list. You can talk about quality across the range, but there are clearly nuggets of gold in there.”

But how to find those nuggets? In order to decide what to acquire, LaRue says DCL and Smashwords worked on an algorithm, using sales data to produce a collection. Initial forays, he says, were heavy on erotica, but through tweaking they arrived at a more balanced data set—although one that is still strong in genre fiction. There is also plenty of nonfiction, including health, self-help, and personal finance—but all seemingly unreviewed.

There are nuggets in the collection, for sure, but many of the titles have an amateurish quality sure to startle public library readers. And the author-provided descriptions can be pretty wacky:

This is not a typical book. If you are looking for that sort of thing, go read something by Chuck Palahniuk. Rather, this is a compilation consisting of various male sexual conquests. It is also a way of making acts of intercourse more challenging...

Perhaps most surprising is that DCL is acquiring e-books for children through Smashwords. Books for children are still vetted closely by most public libraries, with review media playing an important role. “Can we vet every children’s book before we add it? I am not sure that we can,” LaRue says, noting the he suspects DCL might “get stung once or twice.”

Ever forward looking, LaRue is willing to take a chance. “We are at this explosion of publishing,” he says, “And we can either sit back and let everybody else figure out what the mechanics will be, and how to judge the quality of this content, or we can step in and become part of the solution. To do that, you have to take a gamble or two.”

An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

The DCL model raises a host of interesting questions about the nature of library collections. But we’ll have to wait a bit for the most nagging question I have: does anyone in Douglas County want to borrow this stuff?

It’s hard not to be impressed with LaRue’s vision. He predicts more and more authors will choose to self-publish, and that as early as this year we’ll see some major authors defect from the big six, choosing to go the self-publishing route. And he believes that with its own e-book platform, DCL will be well-placed to benefit from the upheavals that are inevitable in publishing.

Maybe so, but from where I sit, there are no guarantees that authors, much less bestselling authors, will want to deal with public libraries. Some are library fans, but others are among the first to voice the “libraries steal sales” doctrine.

What we do know for certain is that e-book readership will continue to expand, and that e-books will very soon become the preferred format for many. And we know that consolidation will continue in publishing, creating megahouses with even more powerful reaches across media platforms. And we know that the public will continue to turn to us for the popular materials of the day, in the format it chooses.

If we can’t meet reader expectations, and soon, then we will need a very good story to tell. Can DCL’s be that story?