1. Covid-19 Closes America’s Libraries
We can reliably count on a major event to top this list each year. But nothing compares to the Covid-19 pandemic that has so far claimed some 300,000 American lives, and in March forced a historic nationwide mass closure of public spaces, including libraries.
On February 29, Washington’s King County reported what was then believed to be the nation’s first death from Covid-19—a man in his 50s, in Kirkland. Two weeks later, on March 13, the King County Library System closed its buildings to the public—all 50 libraries, serving some 1.4 million residents in the Seattle area. Just days later, on March 17, the American Library Association, for the first time in its history, issued a memo recommending that all libraries across the nation close to the public.
“Libraries almost never close. We’re usually the last to close during a crisis,” King County librarian Lisa Rosenblum told PW in May, adding that at first the idea of a months-long, indefinite closure was at first almost unthinkable to her. “In the beginning, I thought, ‘Okay, maybe we’ll have to close for a week or two,’ which is a long time for a library. But eventually, I realized I had to totally rethink everything. And part of my rethinking was to plan as if we were not going to be open again for a really, really long time—because otherwise, we would keep thinking we were just going to go back to pre-pandemic service. And that’s just not going to happen.”
In recent years, observers have argued that if public libraries didn’t already exist in America we probably wouldn’t be able to invent them. In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the question facing libraries today is: can we reinvent them?
So far that reinvention means services like curbside pickup, and limits on patron visits. It means ensuring library workers have appropriate workspace and personal protective equipment, and reconfiguring the library itself: less furniture, more distance between computer stations, hand sanitizer stations, spit guards, and plexiglass dividers. It means contactless checkout, new cleaning procedures, 72-hour materials quarantines, and efforts like OCLC’s Project Realm, which has shared important research on how long the virus can live on different surfaces.
And it means more digital services. A scan of the national headlines on any given day shows libraries reporting sharp rises in digital engagement, including e-books and other digital resources as well as online storytimes, author events, and Zoom book clubs.
In a May 28 editorial, New York Public Library president Anthony Marx wrote that Covid-19 has exposed the need for “radical” change in America’s libraries. But however our public libraries may evolve post-pandemic, one thing is clear: as we seek to recover from this historic global health crisis, we’re going to need them more than ever.
“We now have millions of people who are feeling isolated and stressed and out of sorts,” Eric Klinenberg, author of the acclaimed 2018 book Palaces for the People told PW in early May. “I think the pandemic has magnified the importance of the public library in American community life. This is a moment in our history where we are going to need public spaces like never before, and there simply is no other place that has such capacity to bring people together.”
2. Library Workers Take a Stand
As Covid-19 forced the nation into an unprecedented lockdown in March, librarians did what they always do: they jumped in to help. But as an idealized narrative of selfless hero librarians began to take root in the national media in the early days of the pandemic, the reality on the ground was far more grim: too many librarians and staff working without the proper protective equipment and safety precautions, terrified of becoming sick, facing uncertainty and economic ruin as layoffs and furloughs mounted, with some library workers even being ordered to redeploy from their closed libraries to shelters, makeshift testing facilities, or other frontline, high-risk jobs in their communities.
In a widely shared article on the Book Riot website in April, Kelly Jensen, a former librarian, sounded the alarm. “For institutions ranked among the most trustworthy and beloved,” Jensen wrote, “it’s shameful how the individuals who comprise libraries are treated as disposable.”
But amid the rising fear and deadly uncertainty that came with the early days of the pandemic, library workers organized and effectively shifted the focus to issues of worker safety and well-being. The movement started with a #CloseTheLibraries campaign in early March that raised critical awareness of the dangers facing library workers in the early days of the outbreak. That effort soon expanded into two more campaigns—#ProtectLibraryWorkers, which advocated for the safety and fair treatment of library employees; and #LibraryLayoffs, which created a crowdsourced list of rising number of library layoffs and furloughs across all types of libraries.
“The flipside of all of these feel-good pieces on digital story time, backyard summer reading, and boosted Wi-Fi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for [and] scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being,” wrote Massachusetts-based librarian Callan Bignoli, a prominent voice in the movement, in a May editorial in Library Journal. “It’s time to say, ‘not anymore.’”
In fact, librarians point out, workplace stress is a problem that long predates the Covid-19 crisis. In a groundbreaking 2018 journal article, Rutgers University librarian Fobazi Ettargh coined the term “vocational awe” to describe how the public library’s ever expanding mission to serve their communities too often ignores the the health of the librarians and library workers who have traditionally found it difficult to advocate for their own safety and well-being.
With the virus surging again, serious questions and problems remain. But library workers have now shown they can effectively organize around a powerful principle: that the public library’s commitment to serve its community cannot come at the expense of the health, safety, and physical and mental wellbeing of library staff.
“This pandemic has highlighted the fact that library workers need as much training in collective action and self-advocacy as they do in lobbying for library funding,” wrote Meredith Farkas in the November/December issue of American Libraries. “This kind of collective organizing requires a willingness to look beyond our institutions and traditional hierarchies, but the collective influence we wield can create powerful positive change.”
3. Black Lives Matter
On May 25, the world watched in horror the footage of a Minneapolis police officer coldly kneeling on the neck of an African American man named George Floyd for an agonizing eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. And with the anger, outrage, and protests that followed has come a long overdue acknowledgement of just how deeply embedded systemic racism is in the U.S.—including in our public libraries.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion are of course core values for the library profession. And in the wake of public protests this summer, libraries nationwide stepped up and did a lot of good. Many libraries moved swiftly to provide racial and social justice collections and other resources to their communities, for example, and many offered safe spaces in their communities for conversations on race and equity. Efforts to aid those discussions were assisted by publishers and and other service providers, who made e-book and digital audio collections and titles available with no holds, including bestselling titles like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism; and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.
Beyond the public-facing resources and programs, librarians also committed to taking a hard look at their owns institutions as well. A historically white profession that has struggled to diversify its ranks, the library profession is now confronting issues within their organizational cultures, and committing to do the work needed to become truly anti-racist institutions. “It’s true that libraries, publishers, and schools and colleges work for the betterment of society,” wrote R. David Lankes, director of the Information School at the University of South Carolina, in a July 10 PW column. “But as part of that society, we have also played a role in sustaining its worst elements. The crises we face today—in public health, in our economy, and in confronting the structural racism in our society—demand that we rethink everything, including what we’ve always considered virtuous institutions.”
A June 26 statement from the American Library Association also acknowledged the profession’s fraught history with race: “We recognize that the founding of our Association was not built on inclusion and equity, but instead was built on systemic racism and discrimination in many forms. We also recognize the hurt and harm done to BIPOC library workers and communities due to these racist structures,” the statement reads. “We take responsibility for our past, and pledge to build a more equitable association and library community for future generations of library workers and supporters.”
Recent headlines in our divided nation suggest the road ahead will have its pitfalls. For example, when the Douglas County Public Library in Nevada briefly posted a draft statement of support of the Black Lives Matter movement for discussion on the library website this summer, it led to a swift, ugly backlash. And the county sheriff offered a particularly headline-grabbing response: “Due to your support of Black Lives Matter and the obvious lack of support or trust with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office,” the sheriff wrote in a public letter to library leaders, “please do not feel the need to call 911 for help.” In an equally shocking coda, rather than stand up for the library, the library’s board, over the objections of the library director, later voted to spend up to $30,000 of the library’s scarce resources to investigate the library’s initial BLM statement.
But there’s positive news out there, too. In September, backed by city officials, the Iowa City Public Library released a new 2021–2023 strategic initiative that made headlines for including concrete measures to address equity, diversity, and inclusion issues. “Everybody needs to be willing to have hard conversations,” ICPL director Elsworth Carman told Library Journal reporter Lisa Peet in a recent article. “To say, OK, I’m not an expert but, I want to try to fix it. I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to try to get there.”
4. Macmillan Defends, Then Abruptly Ends Its Library E-book Embargo
On the morning of January 25, at the 2020 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, Macmillan CEO John Sargent thoroughly frustrated a hotel meeting room full of librarians with his defense of the publisher’s controversial two-month embargo on new release e-books in libraries. Over 90 minutes, Sargent insisted that the rapid growth of library e-book lending was creating an “imbalance in the publishing ecosystem.” He told librarians that he would reassess the effectiveness of the embargo around March or April, but until then the embargo was staying.
Then the pandemic hit. In a March 17 announcement, Macmillan abruptly ended the embargo. Just like that a contentious two-year battle was over. “There are times in life when differences should be put aside,” Sargent offered as an explanation, in a short memo to librarians.
The embargo’s end was welcome news for librarians, who at the time were shifting their print spending to their digital collections to serve readers in the wake of physical library closures. The change was good business for Macmillan, too, which couldn’t afford to be the one major publisher not selling new release e-books to libraries during a period in which most libraries had suspended their print purchases.
Still, coming nearly two years after Macmillan’s unilateral “test” embargo on new releases from its Tor imprint started the controversy, the sudden ending left a lot of questions unanswered. Does Macmillan still see library e-books causing “an imbalance” in the marketplace? Might the publisher return to the embargo after the pandemic has ended? As they have from the beginning, Macmillan executives declined to comment on the matter. And thus the company’s library e-book embargo ended much like how it began—with a frustrating lack of transparency and communication.
Of course, it wouldn’t be 2020 without one more twist: in September, longtime Macmillan CEO John Sargent announced that he would be stepping down at the end of 2020, to be replaced by Don Weisberg, president of Macmillan’s U.S. Trade division. And what that change portends for Macmillan’s future approach to the digital library market is now the subject of intense speculation.
Over the years, the library community had come to regard Sargent himself as one of the most implacable skeptics of library e-book lending. With Sargent out of the picture, librarians in 2021 will be curious to learn whether Macmillan’s reticent approach to the library e-book market will be continued by its new leadership.
5. Covid-19 Pushes Library E-book Lending to Record Levels
As evidenced by the battle over Macmillan’s library e-book embargo, the library e-book market has long been a source of tension between publishers and librarians, marked by shifting access restrictions and high prices that librarians have long warned are unsustainable. But in March, as librarians necessarily shifted their spending from print to digital in the wake of the pandemic, a number of publishers eased pricing and restrictions on library e-books. The result? A historic surge in digital lending.
“Every single day we are crossing into new record territory,” Steve Potash, CEO for OverDrive, the leading e-book provider for libraries, told PW in March. “I think digital library lending and services are being elevated to a new plateau. It’s obviously not going to grow at this pace consistently. But it’s going to the next level.”
Library leaders across the nation have backed Potash up, reporting massive increases in digital circulation through the summer. “In April, May, and June, our digital circulation was up 40%, 46%, and 42% over 2019,” said Carmi Parker, a committee member for the Washington Digital Library Consortium, a coalition of 46 libraries in Washington State which manages digital access for its members. The neighboring King County Library System, one of the nation’s biggest and busiest library systems and a perennial leader in digital circulation prior to the pandemic, reported a 42% increase in March through August 2020 over the previous year.
Librarians have spoken for years about their desire to introduce more patrons to their digital collections. But not under these circumstances. And now, librarians worry that the speed of this massive, virtually overnight digital shift has left them vulnerable. What happens when the pandemic is finally behind us? If the library e-book market simply returns to its pre-pandemic state—in which publishers unilaterally raise prices and change terms without negotiation or even consultation—and digital demand remains dramatically higher, as is expected, how will libraries manage?
“We’ve revamped our website to highlight our digital content, and people are responding,” PW columnist and White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library director Brian Kenney told PW in March. “We are bringing a lot of people online, and it’s turning out to be a good experience for them. My guess is that many will want to stay there.”
Indeed, the uneasy feeling shared by many librarians is that the pandemic may have necessarily changed the course of the digital library market during this annus horribilis, but the underlying dysfunction in the marketplace has still not been addressed. For libraries, the question heading into 2021 is whether publishers and librarians will take the experience of this extraordinary year to finally chart a new, stable, and sustainable course for e-books and digital content in libraries.
“When you think about some of the comments that have been made by publishers, it’s clear that libraries are still not really seen as a player in the market,” Kelvin Watson, director of the Broward County (Fla.) Public Library told PW in May. “What I think this pandemic has done for some publishers, if not all, is shine a light on the library’s role in the market.”
Meanwhile, in a sign that there may be progress made in the digital library market in 2021, Amazon Publishing has confirmed that it is in talks with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to make Amazon-published e-books available to public libraries.
Such an agreement would be a breakthrough, as Amazon Publishing currently does not make its digital content available to libraries—an exclusion that librarians have loudly criticized for years. Neither Audible’s digital audio titles nor titles from Amazon’s KDP program are part of the discussion, but gaining access to Amazon Publishing e-books would still be a step forward for libraries. And landing Amazon for the DPLA Exchange, the DPLA’s nascent e-book platform, would be a major coup for DPLA. After all, to license Amazon Publishing titles, libraries would have to use the DPLA Exchange, and to access them patrons would need to deploy the SimplyE app (a free, open source e-reader app developed by the New York Public Library)—meaning library users would not have to go through Amazon to access the titles.
At press time, both parties say talks are still ongoing, and that a pilot program could launch in early 2021.
6. Publishers Sue the Internet Archive
In last year’s top 10, we questioned whether the events of 2019 suggested the Internet Archive might soon find itself in court over its nine-year-old program to scan and lend PDF copies of print books. Sure enough, on June 1, 2020, four major publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, John Wiley & Sons, and Penguin Random House—filed a copyright infringement lawsuit over the program in the Southern District of New York, coordinated by the Association of American Publishers.
The suit is not a surprise. Publishers and author groups have long bristled over the Internet Archive’s program to acquire print books, scan them, and then lend the DRM-controlled PDF copies in lieu of the print books under an untested legal theory known as controlled digital lending. Still, despite a few warning shots fired in 2019, a lawsuit against the IA didn’t appear imminent.
But then, in April, IA leaders made a fateful decision: with libraries and schools across the nation shuttered by the pandemic and their physical book collections largely unavailable, the IA decided to make its collection of some 1.4 million scans temporarily available for multi-user access.
Specifically, under a controversial program known as the National Emergency Library, the Internet Archive temporarily removed the one-copy/one-user rule governing its e-book lending program, known as the Open Library. Users would still have to sign up and borrow the e-books, but there would be no holds list. The announcement of the National Emergency Library garnered national headlines. And the program almost certainly exhausted what little forbearance publisher and author groups had maintained for the IA’s book scanning program over the years.
Among the court filings, the publishers’ complaint makes clear they are not focusing on the National Emergency Library program (which IA leaders voluntarily shut down shortly after the suit was filed). Rather, the suit challenges the fundamental legality of the IA’s scanning and lending program itself. The publishers specifically decry what they see as the “purposeful collection of truckloads of in-copyright books to scan, reproduce, and then distribute digital bootleg versions online.” In announcing the suit, AAP executives cast the Internet Archive as thieves in league with the “largest known book pirate sites in the world.” Among the remedies requested, the publishers’ suit seeks damages, and to destroy all infringing IA scans.
Author and president of the Authors Guild Douglas Preston also backed the suit, accusing the Internet Archive of hiding behind a “sanctimonious veil of progressivism," in a statement of support. “The Internet Archive hopes to fool the public by calling its piracy website a library,” Preston opined. “But there’s a more accurate term for taking what you don’t own: it’s called stealing.”
But in its July 28 answer to the suit, IA lawyers firmly rejected those characterizations. Far from a “pirate” site where illegal digital editions are freely distributed, IA lawyers say the program is designed to function like a traditional library—the print books from which the scans are made are legally acquired; only one person can borrow a copy at a time; the scans are DRM-protected to prevent copying and enforce lend limits; and the corresponding print book from which the scan is created is taken out of circulation while the scan is on loan (and vice versa) to maintain a one-to-one “own-to-loan” basis. And, IA founder Brewster Kahle has pointed out, the scanning wouldn’t be necessary if publishers sold PDFs of books to libraries.
“With this suit the publishers are saying that in the digital world [libraries] cannot buy books anymore. We can only license them, and under their terms,” Kahle said at an online press conference this summer. “We say that libraries have the right to buy books and preserve them and lend them, even in the digital world.”
The parties have agreed to a schedule that would have the case ready for trial by November 2021. And while the case raises some interesting legal questions, the more fundamental question may be this: Deep into the streaming age, 13 years after the commercial e-book market took off and more than four years since the Google Books lawsuits ended after 11 years of litigation, how are we still fighting over low-quality PDFs of older, mostly out-of-print books?
7. Canadian Publisher Calls Public Libraries a “Net Harm” to Literature—Librarians Clap Back
It’s an age-old question: How do public libraries impact the book business? This summer, one independent publisher in Canada caused an uproar after he took to the pages of a major newspaper to offer a controversial opinion.
In a nearly 3,000-word July 25 Globe and Mail opinion piece provocatively titled “Overdue: Throwing the Book at Libraries,” Kenneth Whyte, the publisher of Toronto-based indie Sutherland House Books, pinned blame for the troubles of Canada’s independent bookstores and publishers on public libraries. The “crux of the matter,” Whyte argued, is that libraries rely on “pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it,” concluding that all “the genuine good” libraries do “is to some extent made possible by being a net harm to literature.”
The article was widely shared on social media, though comments on the article suggested few people agreed with Whyte’s thesis. And as you would expect, librarians were also eager to respond.
On July 27, Mary Chevreau, president of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC), submitted a reply essay to the Globe and Mail opinion editor. And what happened next came as a surprise, CULC officials told PW: the paper apparently declined to publish the essay. So, CULC turned to PW, which published the librarians’ response in full on July 31. The piece quickly went viral, racking up nearly 10,000 likes on Facebook over the first weekend of its publication.
In her essay, Chevreau cited evidence—including a fresh Booknet Canada survey—which showed library users are in fact book buyers. And she reminded readers that the library enterprise is grounded in something more profound than commerce.
“Public libraries are a democratic institution that are critical in a civil society,” Chevreau wrote. “More and more, they are playing a crucial role in empowering citizens to thrive in today’s changing world by providing the essential tools, connectivity and information in all its forms. And most importantly, libraries are committed to providing equitable access to the widest range of human knowledge, experience, and ideas. That includes John Grisham, and Jesmyn Ward.”
The episode recalled the media firestorm over a 2018 Forbes article—which was later retracted—in which a Long Island University economics professor argued that Amazon should replace public libraries. And, as happened in 2018 with that piece, rather than dent the public’s support for libraries, Whyte’s editorial has rallied it.
8. Two State Bills Propose “Parental Review Boards” for Public Libraries—and Jail for Librarians Who Defy Them
In January, free speech and library advocates sounded the alarm over a bill proposed in Missouri that sought to establish “parental review boards” in public libraries as a condition of state funding. According to the bill’s text, these boards would have the power to decide which “age-appropriate” materials could be made accessible to minors within the library. But the most shocking provision: librarians who refuse to comply with the board’s decisions would be subject to fines and up to a year in prison.
Specifically, House Bill 2044, the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act (or POOPLA, as one sharp-eyed commenter dubbed it) would establish five-member boards, elected by a simple majority vote at local town meetings. “The main thing is I want to be able to take my kids to a library and make sure they’re in a safe environment, and that they’re not going be exposed to something that is objectionable,” said the bill’s sponsor, state legislator Ben Baker, in a February interview with the local KOAM News. Baker later conceded that the bill was motivated in part by the popularity of Drag Queen Story Hour events in libraries and bookstores around the country.
In a statement, James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America, offered a different take on the bill. “This act is clearly aimed at empowering small groups of parents to appoint themselves as censors over their state’s public libraries,” he observed.
Curiously, just weeks after the Missouri bill was introduced, a clone of the very same bill surfaced in the Tennessee legislature, ramping up concerns of a nationally coordinated, state-by-state effort. And while the bills have failed to advance so far, library and free speech organizations remain wary that these kinds of bills could once again show up in 2021.
“The belief that a small group of parents know what is best for every family in their community denies the very real fact that each community is made up of families and individuals with diverse beliefs, identities and values,” reads a February 20 statement from ALA, which has registered its strong opposition to the bills and continues to monitor the situation. “ALA supports the right of families and individuals to choose materials from a diverse spectrum of ideas and beliefs.”
9. Library Leaders Praise Senate Confirmation of Trump’s Pick to Lead IMLS; Trump Then Renews His Bid to Eliminate the Agency
It’s almost hard to fathom, but 2020 kicked off with a bit of good news for the library community. On January 9, the Senate easily confirmed Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library executive director R. Crosby Kemper III to be the new director of the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
The vote came just weeks after Trump nominated Kemper in November 2019—warp speed for a nonjudicial appointee in the Senate. “Confirming a new IMLS director so quickly shows the high regard in which elected leaders hold libraries as places of opportunity for all Americans,” ALA president Wanda K. Brown said in a statement at the time, praising Kemper as “the right leader for IMLS at the right time.”
But Kemper’s confirmation was a short-lived moment of comity between the Trump administration and the library community. Just weeks later, the Trump administration for a fourth straight year proposed the permanent elimination of the IMLS—and with it virtually all federal funding for libraries.
Fortunately for library supporters, lawmakers have consistently rejected the Trump administration’s recommendations to slash federal library funding, and have instead responded by increasing the IMLS budget each year. But what will happen with federal library funding going forward remains an open question.
On the positive side, the Biden administration will almost certainly end Trump’s four-year string of proposals to end federal library funding. At the same time, veteran political observers warn that GOP lawmakers always seem to rediscover their opposition to government spending when a Democrat is in the White House. And even as the nation seeks to recover from what has been a devastating pandemic, many observers expect that will be the case again.
All of which makes the year-round advocacy work of library supporters as important as ever in 2021 and beyond. As Kathi Kromer, associate executive director of ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office in Washington, D.C., has observed, libraries were successful in defeating Trump’s proposed cuts to federal library funding over the last four years because library supporters have consistently “made it a point to remind their elected officials of the importance of libraries in their community.”
In 2021 and beyond, that kind of year-round advocacy will remain the recipe for success.
10. Tracie Hall Becomes the ALA’s First African American Woman to Serve as Executive Director
In January, the American Library Association named Tracie D. Hall its new executive director, the first African American woman to serve in that post in ALA’s 143-year history. Hall officially took the reins on February 24 from the retiring Mary Ghikas, who had served since longtime executive director Keith Michael Fiels stepped down in July 2017.
In a May interview, Hall told PW that being the first African American woman to lead ALA, one of the nation’s largest professional associations, was a meaningful milestone—but one she has had little time to reflect on. Just days after her appointment was announced, ALA revealed to its membership that the organization was facing a serious financial shortfall. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing ALA to recommend for the first time in its history that the nation’s libraries close. And a week after that, ALA announced the cancellation of its in-person ALA Annual Conference—a key revenue driver for the association. It was the first time since 1945 and the end of World War II that ALA had not held an in-person annual conference.
It’s fair to say that no ALA executive director has faced a more challenging set of circumstances at the outset of their tenure than does Hall. As if ALA’s full-scale reorganization wasn’t a tall enough order, the public library itself is being reimagined in the wake of the pandemic, and a social justice and racial awakening. Oh, and Hall’s first year was an election year that highlighted the nation’s fractured political culture fueled by fake news, conspiracy theories, and alternate realities.
Hall has outlined a bold vision for ALA. “One of the Association priorities that really stands out is to expand our membership and stakeholder base,” she told American Libraries in an interview following her appointment. “Reaching a broader base is key. I want those committed to universal literacy; to closing the school achievement gap or the wealth gap; to ending mass incarceration; to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion; to environmental and community sustainability; and more, to see the Association as among the premier leaders and partners in that work. Getting there must begin with listening, observing, and assessing [ALA’s] needs and opportunities.”