Last month, my daughter gifted me with a fantastic Audible original, Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde’s West Cork. It’s the true story of an unsolved murder in West Cork, Ireland—and, in the vein of the NPR podcast hit Serial, it provides an authentic cast of characters rehashing the case of a French woman murdered in a small Irish town. The narrative is rife with ambiguity and complexity that leaves the listener wondering about victims and justice.

But as a librarian, it left me wrestling with another complexity: how can my library share great Audible originals like West Cork? As it stands, libraries cannot acquire and lend Audible content—and that’s troubling. For example, knowing that Michael Lewis will no longer write for Vanity Fair and will instead do original audio for Audible gives me fewer options to enjoy his work—unless I subscribe to Audible.

I was the first co-chair of the American Library Association Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG) with Robert Wolven in 2011, when the lack of basic e-book access was an issue. Though the DCWG was decommissioned in 2017 after its six-year charter expired, there is still much work to be done. An as I head to the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans, I find myself still very much contemplating the future of library access in an increasingly “digital first” world.

ASCLA Summit @ ALA

At this year’s ALA, on June 22, a select group of about 70 people will convene for a summit to discuss current opportunities and initiatives in digital content, organized by the ALA Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA).

ASCLA has taken a leadership role in establishing the next iteration of digital dialogue, particularly Paula MacKinnon of the Califa Group, Veronda Pitchford of Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS), and Stephen Spohn of the Massachusetts Library System.

The Summit is an opportunity to further forge the path for collaboration between libraries and the publishing industry. It will host academic and public library directors, library content specialists, industry experts, distributors, vendors, consortia, and state library representatives to work cooperatively on a plan to better align the work of libraries and the digital content industries. And for digital content nerds like me, it will give Michelle Obama’s appearance a run for its money in terms of becoming the biggest story to emerge from ALA Annual.

Though the consumer e-book market is now over a decade old, the economics of digital content in libraries is still evolving. On one hand, I am excited to think about the collaboration and networking opportunities that might emerge at the ASCLA Summit, which will highlight a host of projects around the country. But as a professional librarian, and personally as a big consumer of digital content, I remain concerned by the uncertainty of today’s market and the lack of access to digital content at my public library.

As a professional librarian, and personally as a big consumer of digital content, I remain concerned by the uncertainty of today’s market and the lack of access to digital content at my public library.

The original vision of DCWG was to establish an ongoing conversation between libraries, publishers, and others in the digital content business. And this conversation must continue if we wish to maintain library access to digital content in all formats for generations to come. So the question on my mind is: how do we move the digital conversation forward?

One way is through better data. I believe that collecting and sharing data and analytics is critical to defining the value libraries can deliver, and can help tell a more complete story about the potential in library market. On that score, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) has engaged with the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), recognizing that doing more customer research can help better define the effect of library lending on sales and overall revenue.

Another promising data-driven research opportunity is the new Panorama Project. With initial funding provided by OverDrive, the Panorama Project has the intention of tracking not only digital content but also circulation patterns of print books to gain insights into how libraries, publishers, booksellers, and distributors work together, as well as “the impact of library holdings on book discovery, author brand development, and sales.” I am an advisor to the project, and I am eager to see if a Nielsen BookScan–like point-of-sale data system can be created for libraries. The Panorama Project is open to all, and if if you want more info you can visit the website, or email.

What’s trending?
And of course, there is much you can learn from visiting at ALA with the vendors in the digital space and talking about current trends. One trend we’ve observed at my library, the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), is the advent of the “cost-per-circ” model, which is basically a multi-user on-demand option now available from selected publishers through platforms such as hoopla, and OverDrive.

It’s very attractive to be able to immediately satisfy customers with no holds, but it can also be difficult to manage from a budgetary perspective. Indeed, at CCPL, we’ve already learned that difficult lesson for Hoopla music and Kanopy video. It gets too expensive too fast unless we set strict circulation limits.

Another interesting trend: when it comes to reading, our longer-tenured customers seem to be more agnostic about format, whether physical or digital—but we also see that our exclusively digital customers are often new library users. They find us through Google or the Libby app. And how discouraging it must be for these users to get an instant library card online and recognize that the library has the digital content they want—only to land on a waiting list. Combating that kind of dissatisfaction in the age of Netflix and Spotify is a serious challenge for libraries.

For libraries and for publishers, there are no easy answers to these complex, evolving digital marketplace dilemmas. But if we are to continue to serve future generations, we must keep talking and keep moving forward.

PW Libraries Columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association and the American Library Association.