Among the many smart writers I follow on Instagram is journalist Connie Schultz—so I’ve known for a while that her husband, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, recently published a book, Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America. As a former Ohioan, and a supporter of Brown, I am eager to read it. But the book is published by Macmillan and, much to my disappointment, is presumably subject to the company’s e-book embargo.
With a few exceptions, elected officials don’t write books to make money; they write to share their message with voters. So I find it troubling that Brown—a strong supporter of workers and public libraries—is now associated with a publisher that is flouting a core public library value: equitable access.
I suspect that the good senator and others—including senators Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom have also penned works published by Macmillan—likely don’t know about the new restrictions their publisher is placing on digital readers at America’s public libraries. But I am now putting them and anyone else elected to or running for political office on notice: when you publish with Macmillan, you’re disadvantaging those constituents who depend on the public library. Or, if you sign an exclusive audio deal with Amazon’s Audible division (fortunately, Brown has not), you are limiting access only to those with the means to purchase content. And the notion that any elected official would want their ideas available only to those Americans who can pay to read or listen to them flies in the face of our democratic ideals.
I recognize that I am beginning to sound very cranky about Macmillan’s embargo. But as I prepare for the 2020 ALA Midwinter Meeting, the future of digital content in libraries is very much in question. And I have come to the table again and again believing that Macmillan executives might sincerely listen to the library community’s concerns and join us in seeking viable solutions to whatever issues they believe justify such an extreme measure as an embargo. But at this point, I question whether Macmillan executives are acting in good faith. After numerous meetings with Macmillan CEO John Sargent over the years on behalf of ALA, I think Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo’s 2004 bestseller best sums up Sargent’s position on the public library: He’s Just Not That into You.
I for one will not attend another meeting with the Macmillan team while the embargo is in place, even if it means I must resign my position as senior policy fellow for the ALA’s Washington office. I feel demoralized by the idea of asking once more that this embargo be reversed. And I don’t believe we can have a meaningful conversation about the future of libraries and e-books with Macmillan executives until they abandon their embargo. Unfortunately, I don’t think that announcement is coming in Philadelphia.
I am not giving up the fight, however, and I urge all librarians to stay engaged and to continue to advocate for libraries as well. To lift my lagging spirits, I’ve been envisioning thousands of librarians lining up at the Macmillan booth (1240) at this year’s Midwinter Meeting in a respectful act of solidarity so strong that it clogs the exhibit aisles. Now that would be advocacy to action!
I also have great respect for the members of the newly configured Joint Working Group on Digital Content, which will convene for the first time in its new iteration at this year’s Midwinter Meeting, and other groups who continue to work on this issue.
This is important work. I encourage every librarian who is passionate about equitable access to digital content to join any and all conversations—and to remain patient in knowing that our good work will eventually translate to impactful change.
E-book Program Highlights
ASGCLA Consortial eBooks Interest Group Meeting
(Friday, 2:30–4 p.m., Marriott Hotel, Franklin rooms 5 & 6).
Ask Me Anything with Macmillan CEO John Sargent
(Saturday, 8:30–10 a.m., PCC room 108B).
Digital Content Working Group Meeting
(Sunday, 8:30–10 a.m., PCC room 103B).
#eBooksForAll Campaign Update
(Sunday, 4–5 p.m., PCC room 122B).
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).