1: E-books: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

At the 2014 ALA Annual Conference, publisher Simon & Schuster, the last of the Big Five publishers to get into library e-book lending, issued a press release: the publisher was finally expanding its pilot e-book lending program to include all libraries nationwide. A year earlier, such an announcement would have elicited cheers. But the silence at the ALA Conference was deafening—broken only by those who asked: “What took you so long?”

The state of e-books in libraries was once again the big story for libraries in 2014, as it was in 2013. But as the muted reaction to Simon & Schuster’s announcement at ALA this summer suggests, libraries have moved well beyond questions of basic access.

But let’s start with the good news. In 2014, it became official: all of the Big Five publishers now offer their full e-book catalogues to libraries. More importantly, the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group has established direct lines of communication between library leaders and top publishing executives—an unprecedented and vital development in library-publisher relations.

Still, librarians are not popping champagne corks just yet. The e-book market for libraries remains fraught, inefficient, and difficult to manage. Prices for library e-books are often significantly higher than consumer prices. Most popular library e-books come with a variety of restrictions (such as lend limits or expiration dates), spread across an array of platforms and service providers. And, vexingly, there is still no workable plan to preserve digital works, a challenge that is growing more urgent as more works are being published—and self-published—in digital-only formats. As Columbia University’s Robert Wolven told PW earlier this year, digital preservation is the “global warming” issue for libraries. “Everyone knows that if we don’t do something now,” he says, “we’ll be in big trouble later.”

Perhaps the greatest e-book challenge for libraries, however, threatens their very relevance. While e-books are growing in popularity with library users, many are growing increasingly frustrated with the current experience. As Amazon and streaming services such as Netflix rapidly redefine our expectations for accessing content online, the cumbersome e-book checkout experience and the artificial “one user/one copy” model feels arcane. And with new consumer e-book subscription services such as Oyster and Scribd gaining traction, digital reading now has an alternative.

Along with the ALA DCWG, ReadersFirst and other initiatives are poised to make a difference. In the very first line of its charter, ReadersFirst proclaims a “responsibility to fight for the public, and to ensure that library users have the same open, easy, and free access to e-books that they have come to rely on with physical books.” That’s a worthy, stirring mission. But the question facing libraries is of course broader: can the library experience keep pace with their commercial counterparts?

The challenge in 2015 is for libraries not to view the progress made thus far on e-books as success. If so, they risk settling on a plateau of mediocrity that could leave libraries as second-class service providers, while new, affordable, commercial reading services emerge.

Yes, librarians can proudly reflect on the gains they’ve made in the e-book market. ALA past president Barbara Stripling said it best this summer: "Let’s celebrate today’s progress, but also be mindful that a long and winding road remains ahead of us."

2: Amazon vs. Hachette

The dispute between Hachette and Amazon dominated the headlines for much of 2014, generating heated editorials, calls for government investigation, and splitting many observers into pro-Amazon and pro-publisher factions. But in the end, as expected, the two sides made a deal. Librarians certainly paid close attention to the media saga—but was this corporate spat over contract terms a library issue?

Absolutely—here’s why: in the major media, the dispute was framed as a fight over the future of the book. But it never was. In fact, it was always a business negotiation. And if there is one major takeaway from the entire episode, it should be how it ended—in secrecy. As loud and public as the debate was, the terms of its resolution remain confidential.

That’s a problem. As the library e-book issues discussed previously suggest, we very much need to have a serious, informed public conversation about the future of books, reading, and publishing in the digital age. Yes, this includes how writers will be paid, and the role of publishers. But it also needs to include what rights readers should expect from e-books, how libraries will function, and issues of privacy, data collection, DRM, and the complex mess of proprietary platforms now emerging. How should we protect and preserve institutions we deem valuable, like local bookstores and libraries? And, of course, we need to talk about companies like Amazon—but in a much broader context than the book market.

In 2014, the e-book debate largely focused on issues of price, monopoly, and who gets what cut. But the issues are far too wide-ranging and complex to be left to antitrust laws. Certainly, government has a role to play. But does anyone really believe the Department of Justice Antitrust Division should be leading the way on an issue so central to our culture? Simply put, there is no regulatory answer to what are cultural (even constitutional) questions.

If we accept that the future of reading is digital, then the confidential deal that ended the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute highlights a disturbing reality: Our reading future is currently being hashed out by big corporations, behind closed doors. And in addition to not having a seat at the table, nondisclosure agreements often forbid the public from knowing the terms under which the digital book market operates.

On the positive side, the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute succeeded in focusing the eyes of the world on our digital reading future. The question, now that a deal has been made, is how long will that focus remain? In 2015, the e-book conversation Amazon and Hachette ignited must be advanced and broadened. Does this not sound like a job for our nation’s librarians?

3: The GSU E-Reserves Verdict Is Reversed on Appeal

While 2013 was a victorious year for libraries in the copyright realm, librarians were cautioned against spiking the ball too soon. And in 2014, we saw why. In October, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a key fair-use ruling in Cambridge University Press vs. Patton (known as the Georgia State e-reserve case). What happens now is anyone’s guess.

The case—filed in 2008 by three academic publishers: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Sage Publications—centers on digital course readings on campus, and a contentious practice known as e-reserves. The publishers allege that a handful of GSU administrators systematically encouraged faculty members to commit copyright infringement via GSU’s e-reserve and course-content systems, as a no-cost alternative to traditional printed course-packs. In 2012, however, Judge Orinda Evans ruled for GSU, finding infringement on just five of 99 counts.

Notably, the Eleventh Circuit largely affirmed Evans’s careful 350-page ruling, but disagreed with how she weighted the four factors of the fair-use test. Thus, the case is headed back to Evans, who must now reconsider her fair-use calculus, with new instructions from the Appeals Court. But in a twist, the case could end up taking a detour on its way back to Evans. In a highly unusual move, the plaintiff publishers have asked for the full Eleventh Circuit to review the case—in other words, they’re appealing their own victory.

“In many ways, [the publishers] won a reversal, but lost the possibility of achieving any of their most desired outcomes,” blogged Duke University scholarly communication officer Kevin Smith. The publishers seemed to agree with that assessment. In moving for an en banc review from the full Eleventh Circuit, they cited key errors in the Eleventh Circuit opinion and pinned their hopes on the possibility that more judges would agree with Judge Roger Vinson, who issued a non-binding concurring minority opinion in the case.

In his concurrence, Vinson argued that GSU had “not even come close” to establishing a fair-use defense. Although Vinson grudgingly agreed that “educational use is an important factor to consider,” he disagreed with his colleagues’ interpretation of the “media neutrality” principle—that is, the degree to which a work issued in one format retains copyright protection when used in another. “The digital format is merely another way of displaying the same paginated materials as in a paper format and for the same underlying use,” Vinson wrote, rejecting the idea that GSU’s educational mission “weighs in favor of fair use just because the works are being used for educational purposes at a nonprofit university.”

Librarians remain upbeat about their prospects in the case. But after a string of legal victories in the copyright arena, the GSU reversal infuses 2014 with a bit of uncertainty on the fair-use front for libraries. Perhaps more importantly, it has also recharged the conversation about our current system of scholarly publishing.

4: Ferguson

As ALA president Courtney Young told PW, there is nothing beautiful about the tragic events in Ferguson, Mo. But the library’s response to its community in its time of need—and the nation’s response to the Ferguson library—has been truly inspiring.

In the more than four months since an unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed by police, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library (FMPL), with just one full-time employee and fewer than a dozen part-time and volunteer staff members, has gained national attention for its work. As author Sara Benincasa tweeted: “When things seem bleakest, heroes rise. Sometimes they are book nerds.”

In an interview with Library Journal, Scott Bonner, director of the Ferguson Municipal Public Library District, said the library has remained open while other institutions closed (including schools), offering a haven for children as well as adults. “I’m seeing a mix of moods,” Bonner told LJ. “Our volunteers are excited and optimistic, and here to help, and then I have patrons who come in and literally hold my hands and cry—they just needed someone to hold on to and talk to.”

The Ferguson library’s work has gained national attention and reinforced the vital role libraries play in our communities. And thanks to Twitter, a huge spike in donations has flooded the library—over $300,000 at press time—fast approaching the library’s $400,000 annual operating budget. In a tweet last week, Bonner said the donations had brought him to tears.

“What we’re doing is just what libraries do,” he told LJ. “We’re in a particularly dramatic situation, but we’re doing the same thing everyone does. And that’s because our libraries are awesome. We’re all about the community. And our doors are wide open to every human being in Ferguson.”

5: The FCC Announces a plan to Boost Broadband for libraries and schools

This is hardly a secret for many of you, but it bears repeating: the American Library Association Washington Office—the library community's voice in the political realm—has got game. In 2014, they scored some very big victories. In November, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, proposed a 62% increase in funding to wire schools and libraries with high-speed Internet connections, via a $1.5 billion boost to the program known as E-Rate. And librarians played a key role in the plan.

E-books and the ills of the current e-book market tend to dominate the headlines, as infrastructure details are far less glitzy. But more than 90% of U.S. libraries have used E-Rate at some point. And the FCC’s plan is a game changer. If enacted, it will ensure that all libraries can reach high-capacity broadband speeds of at least 100 Mbps for all libraries and 1 Gbps for libraries serving communities larger than 50,000 people.

“The current E-Rate reform effort is incredibly momentous, and important to the future of libraries and schools,” Washington Office Director Emily Sheketoff told PW this summer. “Better broadband speed is vital for supporting modern library services, which include interactive homework help and digital learning labs that demand powerful download and upload capabilities. And, of course, so much content is now digital and networked, as collections rapidly transition from books on shelves to bits in the cloud.”

And E-Rate wasn’t the only success for librarians in Washington in 2014, either: “I think our biggest accomplishment this year was the passage of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act,” Sheketoff says. In essence, the new law makes libraries eligible for access to Department of Labor funding resources to sponsor things like adult education, literacy programs, and 21st-century digital readiness training programs.

Sheketoff is quick to note, however, that the political work is not done: the new initiatives still need to be implemented, and she encourages librarians to stay tuned via the ALA District Dispatch newsletter—and to stay involved with their legislators.

6: Adobe App Flaw Exposes Privacy, Data Issues

Data collection, privacy, and security are all serious issues in our emerging digital reading environment—especially for libraries. And these issues were thrust into prominence in October, after a series of reports from Nate Hoffelder at the Digital Reader revealed that the latest version of Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) was collecting and transmitting unencrypted user data back to Adobe. Librarians reacted strongly, with ALA officials quick to confront Adobe, noting that “thousands of libraries and many tens of thousands of e-book readers around the globe” use Adobe ADE to access e-books.

So, what happened? “It’s complicated,” explained PW contributing editor Peter Brantley, noting that a new version of the ADE app was apparently sending information “in the clear,” (without encryption) back to Adobe, including reader account information, device IDs, and pages read—at least for the books in the ADE library, though possibly other books on the users’ devices (though Adobe denied this). Maybe nothing was happening with the data, Brantley noted. But its collection and unencrypted transmission at the very least “abrogated assumptions of reader privacy and created a hackable data set.”

On the positive side, Adobe responded, issuing a patch to correct the transmission of unprotected user data. But ALA and others say they remain concerned about “the possible over-collection and unnecessary retention” of sensitive user data. “Are all of the data elements collected necessary for product functionality?” ALA officials ask. “Is such sensitive user data deleted soon after the need for operational purposes is fulfilled?”

In a statement, Adobe officials claimed their data collection is “only for proper license validation” and intended to “facilitate the implementation of different licensing models by publishers and distributors.” But a chorus of concerned parties, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, expressed alarm. (the EFF, would later report that it had confirmed Hoffelder's report).

In a blog post, the EFF’s Corrynne McSherry wrote that the Adobe revelation hinted at a bigger issue, suggesting that “the publishing world may finally be facing its ‘rootkit’ scandal.” The reference to “rootkit” recalls the events of 2005, when a major record label’s anti-piracy program on CDs was revealed to be based on a rootkit—a damaging system often used by hackers in conjunction with spyware and malware.

“The rootkit scandal put several nails in the coffin of DRM and music,” McSherry wrote. “If enough readers, librarians, publishers, and authors speak up, perhaps this latest scandal will do the same for DRM and books.” In a later post, the EFF praised Adobe for fixing the flaw, but pointed out a key lesson: "We can't trust vendors to protect our privacy for us."

7: The Carnegie Medals Hit the Big Time (And Thank You, Nancy Pearl)

This year marked the third year of the ALA’s adult book award, the Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. When they chartered the awards, ALA officials hoped to establish an award for adult books that would rival the prestige of its Youth Media Awards, the Newbery and Caldecott Awards, which are widely regarded as the most prestigious for young people’s literature. And in year three, they are well on their way.

Each year, the Carnegie awards ceremony has grown larger, and interest has surged. In 2014, the winners were announced at a standing-room-only reception at the American Library Association annual conference in Las Vegas, where Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) and Doris Kearns Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism) took home top honors. Both authors were on hand to accept, and both delivered enthusiastic speeches celebrating their library hosts. And news of the 2014 shortlist generated more than 400,000 mentions on the Internet, triple the number of mentions in its first year, 2012.

PW columnist and White Plains Public Library (N.Y.) director Brian Kenney served on the selection committee for 2014 and wrote about the experience for the magazine. “My friends are quick to ask the obvious: does the world really need another book award?” he wrote. “Yes,” he answered. “More than ever.” Book awards keep books in the conversation, he noted, which is important in an age when so many newspapers have slashed book coverage. And book awards encourage readers to try new things. And librarians, with their frontline role getting books into readers’ hands, occupy a singular space in our reading culture, beyond that of book critics.

In 2014, just three years in, the ALA Carnegie Medals for Excellence showed that the award has arrived. But 2014 was also bittersweet: Nancy Pearl announced that this was her last year chairing the awards. Pearl—a former Seattle librarian, NPR commentator, and PW contributor—did yeoman’s work in getting the awards on a path for success, and emceeing the first three events. As she closed the 2014 award ceremony in June, she left the stage with two words that brought a round of loud applause: “Carnegies forever.”

8: A Self-Publishing Surge

Self-publishing has come a long way in the digital age, and for libraries 2014 marked a major step forward. Among the notable developments, vendors such as OverDrive and 3M struck deals to feature content from self-publishing provider Smashwords. And more libraries, most notably the State Library of Arizona, have launched their own publishing portals for their patrons.

The library in Arizona has partnered with BiblioBoard to power its program, dubbed Reading Arizona. And Arizona State librarian Joan Clark said that in addition to establishing a platform to own and manage its own e-book collection, it was vital for the library to include a self-publishing component. “We want content about Arizona that is relevant to Arizonans,” she told PW. “So it makes sense to invite authors to share how they interpret the landscape.”

Clark cited the Douglas County Libraries’ platform as an inspiration. “More libraries are beginning to develop projects like this, where they have their own platforms, select their own content outside of the usual third-party vendors, and find innovative ways to bring content to patrons,” she said. “Reading Arizona will not only provide relevant e-books to its patrons—it will contribute to a national conversation about how libraries can best meet growing demand for e-content.”

Indeed, moving to serve the needs of authors was established as a key focus from the very start of 2014. At the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting in January in Philadelphia, Pa., the ALA Digital Content Working Group session focused on how the library can directly connect readers and authors.

With powerful new digital tools, “authors can now see themselves as the locus of production,” PW contributing editor Peter Brantley told the audience at the 2014 Midwinter meeting, stressing that the library has a major role to play beyond just licensing content through the current e-book lending channels.

“I almost want to pound my hands on the table and say this is really important stuff and nobody is addressing it,” he continued. “There is so much energy focused on getting books from the Big Five and under what terms and what prices and how many copies, but the fact of the matter is that there is a whole new world of publishing exploding right before our eyes and we’re not doing anything about in any kind of concerted way. I think we need to do that.”

9: Copyright “Reform” Inches Forward

Copyright reform for the digital age has been much discussed over the last few years, but in 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a series of hearings on some key issues that are sure to be part of any potential overhaul.

Among the topics discussed are whether the doctrine of first sale should be extended to the digital realm and the nature of fair use—a hearing that ended up focusing on the recent Georgia State e-reserves case.

It’s unclear what happens next. It is hard to imagine our current Congress undertaking any kind of meaningful extensive copyright reform. But the hearings did show one thing: the balance of power in setting copyright policy has shifted. In 1998, when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed, copyright law was mainly the domain of entertainment-industry lawyers. But with the rise of Facebook and social networks, and an organized and well-funded tech lobby, things have changed. Look no further than the dramatic failure of SOPA and PIPA for evidence of that. The next copyright overhaul, could be quite a fight.

In his testimony last month, AAP general counsel Allan Adler suggested that the Register of Copyrights convene a conference of stakeholders in an attempt to reach consensus on some of copyright’s thornier issues. Though that could very well happen in 2015, no one should hold their breath in the current political climate. But at the very least, the hearings of 2014 sketched out the battle lines for the next great legislative war over copyright.

10: The Gates Foundation Requires Open Access

They said it couldn’t work. But in 2014 the open access movement hit several key milestones. Among them, the pioneering open access publisher the Public Library of Science (PLoS) published its 100,000 article. And just last month, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said it will require all grant recipients to make their research publicly available online, a multi-billion dollar shot in the arm for the open access movement.

Over the next two years, grant recipients will transition into the policy, allowing for an embargo period on articles that will be phased out. By 2017, all publication of research funded by the foundation must be made freely available for the public online “immediately upon their publication, without any embargo period.” And, the Gates Foundation announced, it will pick up the cost of paying open access publishing fees.

The Gates Foundation’s policy was widely hailed by open access advocates. But its biggest impact may be in the political arena.

In 2015, federal agencies with research budgets over $100 million will begin the process of complying with an Obama-administration executive order requiring federally funded research to be available to the public within a year of publication. Congress has also been pushing for public access: in 2013, it introduced the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which would require that federal agencies offer public access to publicly funded research no later than six months after publication.

In 2015, with the Gates Foundation adding its support, will public-access initiatives get the push they need to finally be realized? Stay tuned.