For e-books in libraries, the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference will mark the end of an era: the ALA Digital Content Working Group will officially come to an end after six years of work.

Chartered in 2011, amid tensions between libraries and publishers regarding e-book access, the initiative was one of the most closely watched—and, in some ways, most successful—efforts launched by ALA in recent memory. But while the DCWG is winding down, e-books and digital content in libraries remains a thorny subject. And at the 2017 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, librarians will try to chart a course for what comes next.

The DCWG is largely credited with helping to break the impasse with publishers over library access to e-books, a major point of contention just a few short years ago. But more broadly, the group brought librarians of all kinds together on a range of critical issues around digital content, and established for the first time a direct channel of communication between ALA officials and publishing executives.

“The first several years were devoted to access issues, for obvious reasons,” says Alan Inouye, director of the ALA’s Office for Information and Technology Policy, under which the DCWG operated. “But I think the most enduring achievement of the DCWG is that it established a longer-term strategic relationship between libraries and publishers.”

That relationship is going to continue. Inouye says a new subcommittee is in the works that will take on aspects of the mission addressed by the DCWG. In Chicago, librarians and ALA leaders will meet to flesh out what that subcommittee will look like and its charge. “Generically, you can think of it as a subcommittee on digital content,” he says. “And periodic visits to publishers by ALA leaders will continue under the rubric of this new initiative.”


Sari Feldman, executive director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, served as the first co-chair of the DCWG, alongside Columbia University’s Robert Wolven. “It was some of the most meaningful work that I did in ALA, and it ultimately led me to the ALA presidency,” she says, when asked about the experience. “I saw the kind of impact that the association could have when all of our divisions, round tables, and offices worked together to craft solutions and communications. I think it was that cohesiveness that really led to a new relationship with the publishing industry.”

Whatever its form, the new subcommittee will start its work at an interesting time for library e-books. After success in securing basic e-book access from the Big Five publishers in 2014, progress has hit a plateau.

Librarians are still struggling with a number of e-book issues—chief among them prices. E-books from the Big Five publishers are often sold to libraries at three to four times the consumer price, which greatly impacts a library’s ability to balance print and digital collections.
The multitude of platforms and business models also remains a frustration. All of the Big Five publishers insist on a one-copy-one-user model, but with different terms, and through a variety of vendors. That’s cumbersome and inefficient to manage, librarians say. And users complain about excessive wait times for popular books.

The most enduring achievement of the DCWG is that it established a longer-term strategic relationship between libraries and publishers.

At a DCWG panel at the 2016 ALA Midwinter Meeting, librarians continued to express a desire for publishers to experiment with new access models, such as transactional or pay-per-circulation models, for example, or metered reading. So far, however, all of the Big Five have resisted for e-books.

But attitudes may be changing. Midwest Tape’s Hoopla platform is one of the services that operates on a transactional model—that is, libraries don’t license “copies” of works but pay a fee for each use, akin to Netflix and other streaming models. And four of the Big Five are on Hoopla for digital audio.

At this year’s BookExpo, a Hoopla representative told PW that the platform has seen significant growth (in both offerings, and usage) for digital audio, comics, and e-books offered by indie publishers over the last year, with e-book circulations doubling in 2016, and nearly 100,000 unique titles being checked out in the first quarter of 2017 alone. From the outset, Hoopla founder and Midwest Tape v-p Jeff Jankowski has criticized the one-copy-one-user model for digital content as archaic, calling it a model built on dissatisfaction, and likening it to “the old video rental stores.” Jankowski says library patrons expect better.

As publishers have learned more about their e-book businesses, and as services like Netflix and Amazon have changed consumer expectations, has the time finally come for a Big Five publisher to experiment with a new model, like Hoopla’s, for e-books in addition to audio? We'll see.

Beyond business models, preservation issues are also a subject of intense interest for librarians. In the analog world, libraries purchased and owned their collections, and thus had free reign to protect and preserve them. That is no longer the case in a world of licensed access. “It’s alarming that there is no strategy for preserving and permanently archiving e-books and the vast quantities of born digital materials,” says incoming ALA president Jim Neal.

That is especially true for the rapidly growing universe of self-published works, he notes. And offering access to the print disabled is also a key topic for librarians.

Growing Demand

There’s been much written about the decline in consumer e-book sales over the past two years. Are those sales moving to self-published works? Are they moving back to print because of high prices, or, as some suggest, digital fatigue? Whatever is happening with the consumer e-book market, e-book demand in libraries is still growing.

OverDrive, the world’s largest e-book lending platform, reported that a record number of libraries (49) had more than a million e-book checkouts in 2016. And readers borrowed 196 million books through OverDrive-powered library websites last year—a 21% increase from 2015.

The end of the DCWG marks the end of a sometimes-contentious first chapter for libraries and publishers in the e-book realm. But with the lines of communication now open, the next chapter is beginning on a more positive note.

“In some ways, the process was painful,” Inouye says. “But it did raise awareness and understanding of what libraries actually do, and how libraries contribute to the ecosystem of reading.”

Feldman agrees. “The level of engagement that I see now from publishers is phenomenal,” she says, noting that Penguin Random House v-p Skip Dye was elected to be the 2018-19 president of the advocacy group United for Libraries. “I really think as libraries, and as an association, we have developed new relationships with the publishers, and created some new opportunities to work together that we didn’t have in the past. I think there is much more to come.”