1. What’s Next for E-books?

Remember those heady days back in 2012, when librarians were locked in contentious talks with major publishers over how to enable e-book lending, and, in some cases, whether it would be enabled at all? We may soon recall that period as the good old days.

As 2015 winds down, e-books appear to have hit a rough patch with consumers. For the Big Five, sales of new e-book titles have declined steadily in recent quarters, raising a key question for 2016: is this just a bump in the road, or, are readers beginning to lose interest in e-books?

But let’s start with the good news: despite a recent BISG survey suggesting that only a quarter of library users borrow e-books, e-book circulation is still on the rise in libraries. In 2015, OverDrive, the leading e-book lending platform for libraries, reported another year of impressive growth in circulation, with the rise in circulation fueled by more choice for readers; all of the major publishers now enable e-book lending in some form, and some indie holdouts finally entered the market, including W.W. Norton, which announced that it was finally enabling e-book lending just before the ALA Annual Conference this past June. Beyond that, however, the news is mixed.

In December, Penguin Random House made headlines by announcing that it was at last “unifying” its e-book terms of sale for libraries. Ever since the blockbuster merger between Random House and Penguin was announced in 2012, librarians have wondered which terms of sale for library e-books would ultimately win out: Penguin’s cheaper but limited licensing terms, or Random House’s more expensive perpetual-access terms? Now, we know—it will be the Random House terms.

Currently, Penguin e-books are licensed to libraries with a one-year expiration date, and at prices close to consumer prices. But after Jan. 1, 2016, Penguin e-books will be licensed on the perpetual-access model used by Random House—which means no cap on the number of loans, but higher prices, up to a newly set maximum of $65 per title. In a bit of good news, the $65 cap is a reduction from the previous Random House cap of $85 per title ($95 in Canada). But the move elicited a tepid reaction from librarians.

“Libraries will be pleased that the combined Penguin Random House license will ensure perpetual access to e-titles, and all will be glad the previous ceiling of $85 per title has been reduced,” said ALA President Sari Feldman in a statement. “But I also know many of my colleagues will miss the flexibility of paying near-consumer prices for e-copies they may not wish to maintain indefinitely, and some will be unable to afford to provide access to the e-books their communities seek.”

As the year closes, general trends in the e-book market are emerging as perhaps the greatest cause for concern. On the consumer side, e-book sales are falling, prices are rising, and innovative new models face problems. Despite popularity with its customers, subscription e-book platform Oyster announced plans to shutter its service in early 2016, and competitor Scribd was forced to cut back on some of its popular genre offerings. And, despite having agency pricing in place, a move that was supposed to enable more competition among e-book retailers, there are signs that Amazon is reasserting its dominance in the market, thanks in part to its courting of self-published authors.

For libraries, providing e-book access in 2016 will remain a complex, time-consuming, and expensive puzzle. As they did in 2015, libraries will have to deal with a growing number of new e-lending models, platforms, providers, restrictions, and high prices. But ever-changing consumer habits have added a new level of anxiety. While e-book lending still follows an analog-era model, streaming services like Amazon and Netflix are rapidly shifting user expectations for digital content.

“On the user experience side, the bar is no longer set by [libraries and publishers],” BiblioBoard’s Andrew Roskill said at a 2015 BookExpo America panel, imploring librarians and publishers to experiment with new models. “It seems like, after four or five years in, we are still talking about [e-books] as if it is a big beta project,” Roskill lamented. “And, you know, the rest of the world has moved ahead. Frankly, it is time for us to try something different.”

Will there be a greater sense of urgency in 2016 among publishers and libraries to engage with digital readers, who, as Roskill suggests, are each increasingly glued to a single screen, where the competition for their attention is intense, and expectations are being set by sleeker services such as those from Amazon and Netflix? One thing is for sure: publishers and libraries can ill afford to settle on a plateau of mediocrity when it comes to e-book lending.

At a packed PW breakfast event at the Random House auditorium in April, marketing expert and Forbes contributor David Vinjamuri argued that publishers must ramp up their engagement with libraries. Not only because publishers can benefit from the marketing exposure libraries offer but because libraries remain among the few institutions dedicated to serving readers and authors. “For all the upside for publishers who choose to work with libraries, there’s also the dark prospect of a future without libraries,” he warned.

“I am proud of the progress we’ve made,” Feldman says, recalling the days when librarians and publishers were still hammering out basic access to e-books. “I also know we’re not done.”

2. A New Librarian of Congress?

Appointing a new national librarian may not be a legacy-defining moment for a U.S. president, but this time around, it’s a pretty big deal. In September, Librarian of Congress James Billington retired after 28 years, giving President Barack Obama the chance to appoint the first librarian of Congress since 1987. And, as a June 18 article in the Atlantic argued, the next librarian could hold a potentially transformative role: the first librarian of Congress to “truly embrace the Internet as core to the library’s mission.”

Without question, much has changed in libraries, publishing, and information technology since Ronald Reagan appointed the now-86-year-old Billington. And the reaction to Billington’s retirement underscores just how much the world has changed. Far from getting the “gold watch” treatment, Billington’s retirement has amplified the voices of critics who have long complained that the Library of Congress requires fundamental change.

In a blistering June 10 article in the New York Times, former University of Michigan librarian Paul Courant said that, in terms of technology, “the library has basically been a bust.” Former Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton (who had even called for Billington’s resignation at one point) observed that Billington “just sat on the sidelines while the digital revolution took place.”

Indeed, the appointment of the next librarian of Congress has become a hot topic of conversation, both in the media and among librarians. In an open letter, ALA officials have asked the president to appoint an actual librarian to the post, which, for much of its history, has been occupied by nonlibrarians, like Billington (who is a Cold War historian). In fact, many in the library community believe Obama may already have the right man for the job in place: interim librarian David Mao, a professional librarian with experience at the library, and an impressive digital résumé. Obama, meanwhile, is reported to have offered the job to author Walter Isaacson (who apparently declined).

Congress has also waded into the discussion. This fall, legislators moved a bill to apply a 10-year term limit to the office, which Obama quietly signed into law on November 5. Historically, there hasn’t been a defined term for the librarian of Congress. But over the years, it evolved into a lifetime appointment—there have only been 13 librarians of Congress since the library was chartered in 1802, and only six since 1900.

For all the promise a savvy new librarian of Congress might hold, it’s worth remembering that the job is still a political appointment that requires Senate confirmation. And, unlike previous, quieter eras in the library’s history, this time the appointment could very well generate something of a political battle. After all, the library community now increasingly finds itself at odds with content industry lobbies and other traditional stakeholders in our digital information economy.

For those who would like to see the librarian of Congress take more of a leadership role on critical library issues, consider the long list of litigation, legislation, and policy fights over the past decade: the library community voiced strong opposition to the ill-fated Stop Online Piracy Act, for example, which was backed by the entertainment industry; librarians support open and public access to federally funded research, which is opposed by publishers. And, for those who have criticized the library’s slow pace of digitization, can you imagine the fallout if the Library of Congress had joined forces with its academic library counterparts that partnered with Google to scan out-of-print books?

For his part, Obama has shown that he somewhat understands what is at stake for future generations of Americans. This summer, he visited a library in Baltimore to talk about e-books for children. He faced down political opposition on net neutrality, and he wants to invest billions in broadband for schools and libraries nationwide. But could political battles around the digital economy portend a contentious appointment process for the next national librarian?

“I could see that happening,” Corynne McSherry, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told PW this summer at the 2015 ALA Annual Conference. McSherry conceded that some of the people she’d like to see in the job “would drive some people ape.” But, she added, it doesn’t need to be that way. “I think there are any number of people who shouldn’t be particularly controversial and who would really do well.”

3. Amid Unrest, Heroic Work in Baltimore

In April, the nation was captivated by the dramatic images of civic unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was killed in police custody. What many observers may not know, is that the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue Branch was at the epicenter of the protests.

Through days of discord, the library stayed open, serving a community in need of both critical services and a safe haven. For its efforts, the library received the Tech Logic People First Award, given for the first time at the 2015 ALA Annual Conference and presented by a famous Baltimore native: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

“Believe me, you could look out the window and see all of the things happening,” library director Carla Hayden said. “And the library was a refuge for the people in that neighborhood.”

Hayden recalled how, a day into the unrest, the library reached out to Whole Foods, which provided food for children. The library then began providing diapers and other basics because local stores were not open. “Next thing you know, all the kids were on their Wii machines in the meeting rooms, having fun,” Hayden said, “and really being nonchalant about all the national press right outside the door.”

The actions of librarians in Baltimore once again underscored the importance of libraries in our communities. And it recalled the work of the Ferguson (Mo.) Municipal Public Library in 2014, following unrest in that city, after an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by police. And, like Ferguson librarian Scott Bonner in 2014, Hayden noted that the actions of Baltimore’s librarians was nothing unusual—that the library was simply doing what libraries do.

“But it renewed my faith and my purpose as to what libraries are about,” Hayden added. “When they talk about the age of virtual libraries, the library as place—as placematters.”

4. Google Wins... Again

In October, after more than a decade of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously affirmed that Google’s massive, controversial library-scanning project was protected by fair use. The decision in Authors Guild v. Google was widely praised by librarians, who said the ruling would likely help clear a legal path for future digitization projects. Librarians also voiced appreciation for U.S. Second Circuit Judge Pierre Leval’s larger observations on the purpose of copyright.

“The ultimate goal of copyright is to expand public knowledge and understanding,” Leval wrote for the court. “Thus, while authors are undoubtedly important intended beneficiaries of copyright, the ultimate, primary intended beneficiary is the public.”

The litigation over Google’s plan to scan and index millions of out-of-print library books has certainly followed a long and winding legal road. And despite 10-plus years of litigation—and a string defeats for the plaintiffs, including two emphatic fair use rulings and two unanimous affirmations by an appeals court—the case may not yet be over. The Authors Guild has vowed to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, and has until mid-January to do so. Most observers, however, do not expect the high court to take that case.

Though there was anxiety in the early days about how the Google case might play out, after Leval's decision, the library community these days is feeling pretty good. “I suppose we should thank the Authors Guild for the unintentional support they have provided for a balanced copyright law in the digital age,” blogged Kevin Smith, Duke University’s scholarly communications officer. Still, it remains to be seen exactly how the Google decision influences the future application of fair use.

“Leval managed to weigh in on a remarkable number of fair use controversies over the course of a single opinion,” observed Brandon Butler of the American University Intellectual Property Law Clinic, adding that Leval’s Google opinion “sheds light on a host of hot fair use topics in ways that courts and copyright wonks will be citing and unpacking for years to come.”

In 2016, we could very well see a striking example of the Google decision’s broader impact on fair use—and sooner rather than later (see #5).

5. Did Tide Turn in the GSU E-reserves Case?

In October 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed and remanded a key fair use ruling in Cambridge University Press v. Patton, known widely as the Georgia State (GSU) e-reserves case. And, though Judge Orinda Evans has yet to issue a new ruling, filings over the summer have observers wondering if 2015 was the year the tide turned in the contentious case.

First filed in 2008 by three academic publishers, the case accuses a handful of GSU administrators (including the university librarian) of systematically encouraging faculty members to illegally copy and distribute selected course readings via GSU’s e-reserve and course-content systems as a no-cost alternative to traditional course packs. In 2012, Evans ruled for GSU, finding infringement on just five of 99 counts. But the appeals court ordered Evans to rebalance her four-factor fair use test.

In their remand briefs, filed in June and July, each side presented strikingly different interpretations of the 11th Circuit’s ruling. The publishers claimed that the appeals court directs Evans to be “primarily concerned” with the effect of GSU’s copying on the publishers bottom lines, because such unlicensed use threatens their “incentive to publish leading works of scholarship.” GSU argued that the copies are essential for teaching, and that teaching fulfills copyright’s core purpose, thus the benefit of GSU’s nonprofit educational use in the classroom outweighs any slight drop in revenue.

The wildcard is the aforementioned decision in Authors Guild v. Google. In a section of his opinion explaining why Google’s commercial aims did not preclude the company from claiming fair use, Leval added a counterbalancing footnote, in which he observed that there is “no reason to presume categorically that a nonprofit educational purpose” always qualifies as fair use. “The publication of educational materials would be substantially curtailed,” Leval concluded, “if such publications could be freely copied for nonprofit educational purposes.” After years of legal setbacks, that footnote must have been music to the publishers’ ears—and attorneys for the publishers quickly filed a brief with Evans, touting Leval’s footnote.

In 2016, the library world waits to see how Leval’s observations in the extraordinary case of Google might affect the day-to-day application of fair use in higher education. And, though the Google case has drawn more headlines, the GSU case may ultimately prove to be the more important fair use case for libraries. After all, Google’s scanning project was a singular, extraordinary digitization effort; the digitized readings like those at issue in the GSU case, on the other hand, are common practice on college campuses.

However the case turns out, it is likely far from over. There could be more appeals, and, barring a settlement, there will certainly be more wrangling over any potential relief after Evans rules.

6. The Carnegie Medals Yield “the Best Book Award Acceptance Speech Ever.”

Now in their fourth year, the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction have quickly been established as major literary awards. Each year, the award announcements have garnered more press, and the live events have grown more popular. But, in 2015, the awards hit a new high.

At the ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco, author and legal advocate Bryan Stevenson, who took home the Carnegie Medal in nonfiction for Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, gave an acceptance speech that left librarians buzzing about “the best book award acceptance speech ever.”

Just Mercy is an eye-opening story about race and justice in America from one of America’s most tireless advocates. And Stevenson’s speech was timely, delivered on the very same day President Barack Obama gave a moving eulogy for slain pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was among the nine murdered a week earlier in a heinous act of racial violence in Charleston, S.C. The moving speech went viral after Publishers Weekly published a transcript. The paperback version of Just Mercy, which came out in August, rocketed up PW’s bestseller list.

“I wrote this book because I was persuaded that if people saw what I see, they would insist on something different,” Stevenson told the audience. “And that’s what’s powerful about books. That’s what great about the library. Getting people closer to worlds and situations that they can’t otherwise know and understand.”

In 2016, look for the Carnegies to take yet another step forward. Starting at the upcoming show in Boston, the awards will now be announced at an event at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, putting them on a closer schedule with other major literary awards.

7. Seattle’s Failed Rebranding Effort

It’s common for libraries to update their logos and profiles, usually without much notice from the public. But this fall, a bid to rebrand the Seattle Public Library (SPL) blew up after it was revealed that SPL officials had, for significant money, hired the megacorporate brand strategist Hornall Anderson (Frito-Lay, GE, Starbucks) to lead its campaign. After heavy public criticism, the matter came to a head when the SPL board officially rejected the library’s rebranding effort on October 28.

What went wrong? First, as White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library director and PW contributor Brian Kenney observed in a November column, there was the money: in all, SPL had earmarked nearly $2 million for the rebranding campaign. “Even though SPL wasn’t using public dollars to fund the effort (the rebranding was supported by foundation funds), Americans expect public libraries not to operate like corporations,” Kenney wrote. “It doesn’t matter where the money comes from. If a library can raise $2 million, the public would prefer it be spent on hours, materials, and services.”

But perhaps SPL’s biggest mistake was in its communications efforts—or, more precisely, the lack thereof. The public was not given much of a say in the yearlong process until the very end, when a user survey went out, at which point, the press pounced. In September, the Stranger, a well-regarded weekly alternative newspaper in Seattle, wrote that SPL was “about to blow a bunch of cash on a lot of cosmetic nonsense in a misguided effort to appear relevant in a corporate world dominated by sleekness and soullessness and sadness.” The bad press spread, with the Seattle Review of Books also taking up the charge. Eventually, the story broke nationally.

“You would think the one lesson library managers nationwide would have learned from the New York Public Library’s disastrous, failed bid to redesign its iconic 42nd Street main library,” Kenney wrote, “is that you have to involve the public in your plans, and early in the process.”

What’s unfortunate, Kenney added, is that SPL would have benefited from a rebranding. “The message SPL is trying to communicate is much the same as that of every other public library in the U.S., which is hardly radical,” he concluded: though users “can still find the library of your past (books, quiet), we are also becoming something different (community-centric, digital, learning-focused).”

8. An Independent Copyright Office?

Copyright reform proposals continued to simmer in 2015. Among the highlights, the Authors Guild proposed to Congress that Internet service providers be required to filter their networks for copyright infringement; and the library community came out against the Copyright Office’s plan to deal with orphan works—a dramatic reversal from past positions, driven, library officials say, by the evolution of fair use jurisprudence.

But one 2015 proposal in particular has ramped up the tension between copyright stakeholders: in June, Rep. Judy Chu (a Democrat from California) and Rep. Tom Marino (a Republican from Pennsylvania) floated a proposal to remove the U.S. Copyright Office from the purview of the Library of Congress, and to establish it as an independent agency.

Under the proposed Copyright Office for the Digital Economy (CODE) act, the Copyright Office would have its own budget, offices, and an executive director appointed by the president to a 10-year term, who, among other duties, would advise Congress and the executive branch on national and international copyright issues. The proposal came on the heels of a report to Congress in April by Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, who told lawmakers what we’ve all known for years: that the Copyright Office is “under strain” because of digital advancements, and shifting public expectations.

Though there is broad agreement that the Copyright Office needs more resources and a major technology overhaul, there is sharp disagreement over the idea of establishing it as it an independent agency.

The proposal is supported by the content industries, stakeholders who generally favor tougher copyright enforcement policies. Along with the entertainment industry, both the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild issued statements in favor of the proposal; An AAP statement said the draft was a “critical first step towards crafting legislation to equip the Copyright Office with the tools and authority necessary to realize the full potential of copyright and creativity in the digital age.”

The library community, along with tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix, stand in opposition, with critics questioning what kind of “authority” supporters envision an independent Copyright Office wielding. Would there one day be copyright enforcement officers kicking down doors of suspected illegal file sharers?

“Establishing the Copyright Office as an independent agency does nothing to address its challenges,” ALA officials concluded in a statement. “Instead of independent authority, the Copyright Office needs resources—both in the form of funding and technical expertise—to bring it out of the typewriter age.”

With a presidential election and more pressing issues on Congress’s plate, don’t expect movement on this bill—or any copyright reform, really—in 2016. But, make no mistake: this proposal could signal a shift in the copyright battle lines.

9. Mergers and Acquisitions

As you walk around the ALA exhibit floor in 2016 and beyond, it may start to look a little different. The year 2015 will be remembered as the year of the deal, with a number of major mergers between and acquisitions of popular library vendors.

Among the most surprising, was the news in October that 3M is exiting the library business, selling its North American and global library businesses, including 3M’s popular Cloud Library e-book lending service, to Bibliotheca. But not to worry: life, and business, will go on—and may even get better. Bibliotheca officials say the company will be “investing significantly in growing the library business.”

Also in October, ProQuest announced that it had acquired the Ex Libris Group, a leading global provider of library automation solutions—the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that ProQuest paid around $500 million to complete the deal, which came on the heels of ProQuest’s acquisition of Coutts Information Services from the Ingram Content Group earlier in the spring.

And, of course, leading library e-book vendor OverDrive was acquired earlier this year by the Japanese conglomerate Rakuten. In 2016, will be interesting to get a read on how these major deals are playing out for libraries.

10. We Need to Talk About Reference

Reference service is a pretty common topic of discussion among librarians. But when PW contributor Brian Kenney raised the topic in a September column in PW, it quickly became one of our most extraordinary library stories of the year. What library reference users increasingly want, Kenney observed, is “help doing things rather than finding things”—and in the digital age, he argued, this represents an unprecedented shift for librarians and requires a new discussion.

“For years, librarians have been poring over virtual reference transcripts for clues to the future, and yet little formal research has been conducted on what’s actually happening at reference desks today,” he wrote. “It’s time to acknowledge that something else—which we are only beginning to understand—is taking the place of traditional reference service in public libraries.”

If you missed it, go back and take a read, check out the comments, and join the conversation. Even if you don’t work in reference, the future of reference services goes to the very heart of the library mission.