1. An “Organized” Effort to Ban Books in Schools and Libraries

New headlines virtually every day tell the story: the nation is in the midst of an alarming, unprecedented spike in attempts to ban books from schools and libraries, and in particular books concerning race and the LGBTQ experience.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Information Freedom, told PW in September that book challenges have spiked dramatically nationwide since June. And while she was quick to point out that the rise in challenges to books on race and the LGBTQ experience have been a concern for years, she said the sudden surge in 2021 is especially troublesome.

“We should always take any attempt to ban or remove books from libraries seriously, because it’s an attempt to censor ideas and to enforce an orthodoxy of what is thought about and talked about in our communities,” Caldwell-Stone noted. “But the volume of challenges we are seeing now appears to be the result of an organized movement by certain groups to impose their political views and make them the norm for education and for our society as a whole.”

If there’s any good news surrounding this concerning development, it’s that librarians and educators—often bolstered by support from their communities—have had some early success in pushing back against many of recent efforts to ban books. For example, in Goddard, Kans., school officials rejected an attempt to pull a list of titles that had been circulating nationally on social media. In Virginia, the Spotsylvania County school board was forced to reverse its recent decision to remove a list of “sexually explicit” books from its schools after pushback from the community. And in York County, Pa., a student-led movement garnered national headlines for successfully blocking an attempt by a local high school principal to ban a list of articles, videos, and books mainly featuring Black and Latino representation.

The more sobering reality, however, is that the current wave of book banning is not just about books. Rather, observers said, the challenges are part of an organized, localized political strategy on the right, alongside calls to ban the teaching of so-called critical race theory, designed to sow conflict and activate conservative voters. “What we’re seeing is the weaponization of ‘parental control’ to advance a political agenda,” explained John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, a political action group that works to support libraries at the local level.

While book bans are hardly new, librarians told PW that the emerging threat is unprecedented. Because it’s one thing to talk through a complaint with a concerned parent. There are well-established policies and procedures in place to deal with these kinds of book challenges. But it is something else entirely to face an organized, often intimidating political movement in which books are being used as a cudgel in a broader effort to win local elections.

2. Maryland, New York Pass Library E-book Laws; AAP Files Suit

In 2021, after a few years of gradual backsliding, the library community appeared to make progress in its long-standing efforts to secure equitable access to digital content in libraries. And the most notable of these efforts was the passage of bills in Maryland and New York that seek to ensure public libraries have access to the same e-books and digital audiobooks that are commercially available to consumers.

Maryland became the first state to enact such library e-book legislation, with its bill passing the Maryland General Assembly unanimously on March 10, and becoming law on June 1. The law is set to take effect in January 2022. New York then followed suit, passing its bill in June. At press time, however, the bill still has not yet been sent to governor Kathy Hochul for signature or veto, though state law requires the bill be presented by the end of the calendar year.

The bills come after a decade of tension in the library e-book market, and they emerged as a direct response to Macmillan’s controversial (and since abandoned) 2019 embargo on frontlist e-books in libraries, which led library advocates to take their concerns to state and federal legislators. For their part, the bill’s supporters insist the laws are narrowly limited in scope: they require that publishers that offer to license digital literary content to consumers must also offer licenses to public libraries on “reasonable” terms. “As we have said so often before, it shouldn’t take a credit card to be an informed resident,” explained Michael Blackwell, a Maryland librarian and an organizer of the ReadersFirst Coalition.

But the Maryland and New York laws have not been without controversy. And on December 9, after months of saber-rattling, the Association of American Publishers filed suit in federal court in Maryland arguing that the law is preempted by the Copyright Act.

“It is unambiguous that the U.S. Copyright Act governs the disposition of literary works in commerce—and for that matter, all creative works of authorship,” said AAP president Maria Pallante, in announcing the suit. “We take this encroachment very seriously as the threat that it is to a viable, independent publishing industry in the United States and to a borderless copyright economy.”

As 2021 draws to a close, similar bills are advancing in more state legislatures. A hearing on Massachusetts’s version of the law, for example, was held on November 19. But it remains to be seen whether the AAP’s efforts to stop the laws will succeed.

Update: On December 29, New York Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed the state's library e-book law, citing concern that the bill is preempted by federal copyright law.

3. A Potential Watershed Moment for Library Funding

No question, the past two years have been challenging. But if there’s a positive to be taken from to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that the important work of America’s public libraries has once again gained the attention of Congress. And as 2021 draws to a close, library supporters have a chance to change the future of federal library funding.

Already, library advocates have secured vital federal funding increases. On the heels of a $50 million funding boost in the 2020 CARES Act, in 2021 the IMLS received an additional $200 million to distribute via the American Rescue Plan Act—the largest single investment in the agency’s 25-year history. In November, President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes billions to support broadband and to support digital inclusion projects across the nation, a huge opportunity for libraries of all kinds. And of course, a multi-trillion-dollar budget reconciliation bill is still hanging in the balance.

Another opportunity that emerged in 2021 is the Build America’s Libraries Act, which was introduced as a standalone bill to provide up to $5 billion to address the critical infrastructure needs of U.S. libraries. And while that bill appears to be stalling as the year winds to a close, ALA is urging librarians to remain engaged with their local representatives in the face of what has been an exhausting political process.

“The amount of money we’re talking about in the Build America‘s Library’s Act alone is about 25 times the amount that libraries get from IMLS every year,” explained Gavin Baker, ALA deputy director for public policy and government relations, in a September PW article. “We’re talking about getting the equivalent of the next quarter century of federal library funding potentially in one fell swoop. With this funding, not only can we repair the damage of the pandemic, we will be able to make our buildings and our facilities stronger, safer, more efficient, more accessible, and more sustainable than they ever have been.”

PW columnist Sari Feldman agrees. “With billions in federal funding at stake to build, rebuild, and to reinvest in America’s libraries and library services, library supporters must see this moment for what it is: an opportunity to truly transform libraries and the future of federal library support,” Feldman wrote in an August PW column. “Just think of the difference we can make in people’s lives with today’s powerful information technology, and with the kind of major government investments now on the table. We cannot let this opportunity pass us by.”

4. DPLA Signs Amazon, Forms Palace Project with LYRASIS

At the end of 2020, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) confirmed that it was close to signing an agreement with Amazon Publishing to make its e-books and digital audiobooks—some 10,000 titles in all—available to libraries via the DPLA’s digital platform. And though it would take another six months, in May 2021 the parties successfully sealed the deal.

The agreement marks Amazon Publishing’s first foray into the digital library market, after years of criticism for withholding its digital content. DPLA reps told PW that Amazon Publishing e-books are now being added to the catalog, with some titles currently available to libraries and more being added on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, in a recent update, DPLA said it is also making progress on a potential agreement for Audible titles—a potentially huge breakthrough for libraries.

Meanwhile, in yet another major development, DPLA and LYRASIS announced in June that they had joined forces (and had secured $5 million in additional funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation) to charter the Palace Projecta strategic initiative to “develop and scale a robust suite of content, services, and tools for the delivery of e-books, audiobooks, and other digital media.” The effort will be spearheaded by Michele Kimpton, who negotiated the Amazon deal in her prior role DPLA, and now serves as LYRASIS senior global director.

Palace Project executives say the effort will build on an existing collaboration between DPLA and LYRASIS using an open source code designed and developed by the New York Public Library. As part of the initiative, the DPLA’s nascent digital marketplace for libraries, formerly the DPLA Exchange, has been rebranded under the Palace Project. So, too, has SimplyE, the free, open source user-facing library e-reader app developed by the NYPL, which will become the Palace app.

And that’s not all: the DPLA/LYRASIS announcement came just days LYRASIS announced the acquisition of BiblioLabs, the innovative Charleston, S.C.–based library technology firm and creator of the BiblioBoard e-book platform—another move clearly undertaken with an eye toward empowering libraries. “LYRASIS sees Palace as an unprecedented opportunity for libraries to be digital leaders within their communities,” said LYRASIS CEO Robert Miller in a June statement.

How these ambitious plans shake out in 2022 remains to be seen. But in a surging digital library market dominated by leading platform OverDrive, the moves represent a significant next step in the pursuit of a “library-centered” digital platform.

5. Washington, D.C., City Council Passes School Librarian Requirement, Considers Permanent Funding

In August, school librarians in Washington, D.C., scored an important victory. Faced with the prospect of yet another devastating round of budget cuts, school librarians and their supporters and allies mounted a vigorous advocacy campaign to show D.C. legislators exactly why school librarians are more vital than ever. And on August 11, the council responded by passing a budget that for the first time ensured that every D.C. public school would have at least one librarian.

It was a rare bit of good news for school librarians, who as a profession have faced a generation-long, nationwide trend of cuts. Furthermore, the victory highlighted the importance and urgency of bold advocacy measures. In an October PW column, John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, a political action committee dedicated to library issues at the local level, suggested that school librarians are fast approaching an inflection point, and urged library supporters to rethink how they support school libraries in their communities.

“As schools across the country resume in-person learning, and with significant, once-in-a-lifetime federal funding hanging in the balance, the time has come for school librarians and their allies to abandon their traditional advocacy toolkit and to start treating the fight for their future like the political campaign it truly is,” Chrastka wrote.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on D.C. once again as the city council considers the Students Right to Read Amendment of 2021, which would make dedicated funding for school librarian positions permanent. At a November 23 hearing, passionate testimony from D.C. school librarians like KC Boyd and Christopher Stewart (who spoke online from his library with some of his students behind him) emphasized the importance of the measure, as did, crucially, that of Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, president of the Washington Teacher’s Union. Lyons told D.C. lawmakers that “access to a full-time certified librarian is a basic right in a high quality education.”

In written testimony, ALA and AASL leaders said that passage of the measure would be an investment in D.C.’s “educational, economic, and civic future.”

6. Advocacy Group Library Futures Launches, Spurs Inquiry into the Library E-book Market

After months of planning, advocacy group Library Futures officially launched in January 2021—and the group appears to have already made an impact.

In September, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo from California launched an inquiry into the library e-book market, submitting a list of questions to the CEOs of the Big Five publishers and, in a follow-up, to nine major library e-book distributors as well. And Library Futures appears to have played a key role in making it happen.

Representatives from Library Futures told PW that the Wyden/Eshoo inquiry began after Wyden, a well known library supporter, participated in a March 24 digital symposium titled “Burying Information: Big Tech & Access to Information,” hosted by advocacy group Public Knowledge, the Georgetown Initiative on Tech and Society, and Library Futures. Notably, the program focused significant attention on the scanning and lending of print library books under an untested legal theory known as controlled digital lending (CDL). And the panel also included Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, which is currently being sued by four major publishers and the AAP over its CDL-based Open Library program.

In a recent interview, Harvard University’s Kyle Courtney, an architect of the CDL framework who serves as chair of Library Futures, told PW that Wyden’s interest in the digital library market grew after participating in the program. “[Wyden’s] staff was very interested in exploring these issues, so they put together an investigation team and went to work,” Courtney said. “And, I guess the results of that work is this inquiry.”

Library Futures is currently made up of two wings, with Jennie Rose Halperin serving as the group’s executive director. The Library Futures Institute is a 501(c)(3) advocacy group dedicated to a “technology-positive future” for libraries. The Library Futures Foundation, meanwhile, is a 501(c)(4) organization registered to lobby on policy issues important to libraries, such as copyright.

The launch of Library Futures certainly comes at an important moment for libraries, with demand for digital resources in libraries surging amid the continuing pandemic and with an array of legal and legislative issues hanging in the balance. And though it is unclear where the Wyden/Eshoo library e-book inquiry will go, library supporters say they it is helpful to have another perspective attracting the attention of lawmakers.

“I am not a seasoned DC insider,” Courtney told PW. “Library Futures is driven by volunteerism, literally. I’m just a person that cares. And I think these issues are issues that everyone can understand. You don’t have to be a copyright expert to understand that a library should be able to own books and to lend them and preserve them.”

7. The Freckle Report 2021 Raises Questions

For a second straight year, London-based library advocate and former Waterstones managing director Tim Coates published “The Freckle Report,” a study on the state of U.S., U.K., and Australian libraries, drawn from a proprietary survey on public reading habits as well as publicly available IMLS statistics. And as with the initial report, issued in 2020, librarians in the U.S. reacted strongly to Coates’s prime takeaway: that U.S. libraries are in the midst of a “long running and persistent decline” in usage with “no realistic actions in place” to reverse the trend.

“In the U.S. there has been a fall of 31% in public library building use over eight years, up to 2018,” Coates wrote in the report, citing the most recent stats from the IMLS. He concludes that a “continuous decline of this nature,” which includes drops in the stats for both gate counts and physical circulation, suggests that library leadership is ignoring “the figures it does have” and not working hard enough to collect “the figures it should have.”

Among Coates’s more contentious conclusions is his view that the decline reflected in library statistics is related to a reallocation of resources toward an array of community services, and away from what the public overwhelmingly still sees as the library’s most valuable service: print books. And while many librarians criticized the report, one major figure in the library community offered a more measured response: in an interview with PW in May, IMLS director R. Crosby Kemper acknowledged the trends cited by Coates in his report. And though Kemper noted his disagreement with a number of the report’s conclusions, he said that Coates was at least “asking the right questions.”

A new report is in the works for 2022, with a third consumer survey, supported by the EveryLibrary Foundation, completed in October. Coates previewed the results during a November webinar, and praised libraries for doing “an amazingly good job” meeting the needs of readers during the pandemic.

8. Library of Congress Replaces “Illegal Aliens” Subject Headings

Last month, the Library of Congress announced that it will replace the catalog subject headings “Aliens” and “Illegal aliens” with the more accurate—and non-offensive—terms “Noncitizens” and “Illegal immigration.” The decision was announced on November 12 at the regularly scheduled meeting of the LC’s Policy and Standards Division, which maintains Library of Congress Subject Headings. But the move was years in the making.

In fact, LC first agreed to replace the subject headings back in 2016 after being petitioned by a range of advocacy groups, including librarians. But in an unprecedented action, a group of conservative lawmakers objected to the change, and went so far as to draft a provision attached to an appropriations bill requiring the library to retain the terminology—marking the first time in the library’s history, LC officials told reporters, that lawmakers had intervened in a routine cataloging matter.

In a statement, the ALA, which has long supported and vocally advocated for the change, praised the LC’s decision. “This update better reflects common terminology and respects library users and library workers from all backgrounds,” said ALA president Patty Wong, who called the old terms “dehumanizing.”

LC subject headings are widely used in library catalogs and are routinely updated by the Policy and Standards Division of the library. New guidance is now being issued reflecting the changes, and librarians say the subject headings on existing LC bibliographic records are being updated “as expeditiously as possible.”

Of course, the move was not without a conservative backlash. In a lengthy letter to librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Braun of Indiana called the decision “a politically-motivated and Orwellian attempt to manipulate and control language.”

9. Elsevier Strikes Historic Open Access Deal with the University of California

In March, Elsevier, the world’s largest scholarly publisher, and the University of California, one of the world’s largest research institutions, announced a groundbreaking open access agreement, ending a high-profile two-year standoff. The four-year deal, which took effect on April 1, was immediately hailed as a major milestone for the global open access movement.

The contentious negotiations first garnered international headlines when UC walked away from its subscription deal with Elsevier in February 2019, demanding that the publisher negotiate a transformative open access deal. No stranger to tough negotiations, Elsevier held its ground, cutting off UC’s subscription access that July.

But despite the drama, there were signs along the way as to the eventual outcome. Over the course of its dispute with Elsevier, UC successfully negotiated transformative open access deals with eight other scholarly publishers, including with the world’s second leading academic publisher behind Elsevier, Springer Nature, in June 2020. And for its part, Elsevier struck a number of transformative open access agreements in Europe, including one with the Royal Danish Library.

In a statement announcing the UC deal, both parties acknowledged the groundbreaking nature of the agreement and sounded a conciliatory note after a bruising negotiation. “Both sides showed flexibility to reach a truly tailored approach,” said Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit. Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian and economics professor at UC Berkeley and cochair of UC’s publisher negotiation team, said the deal “would not have happened without Elsevier and UC having worked together to find common ground.”

As for what comes next, MacKie-Mason framed the Elsevier deal as a turning point for the future of scholarly publishing. “Ultimately, we’re trying to make this a standard way of doing business,” he told the UC Berkeley news service, “so that all agreements are open access and all scholarly publishers will stop selling subscriptions.”

10. Nancy Pearl Receives the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award

The past year has clearly held no shortage of challenges for the library community. But in November, librarians had occasion to celebrate.

On November 17, during the 72nd National Book Awards ceremony, Nancy Pearl was honored with the 2021 National Book Foundation Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. It is an honor richly deserved.
In fact, for all Pearl has done to inspire readers and support publishers and authors over her four decades in librarianship, it is hard to imagine a more worthy recipient. And in honoring Pearl, the NBF also celebrated librarians across the nation for the essential, pivotal role they play in the reading enterprise.

“Libraries are an empowering force in the United States, and are vital to our communities,” said David Steinberger, chair of the board of directors of the NBF, in his statement announcing the award. “And Nancy Pearl’s lifetime of service is a reinforcement that libraries are of the utmost importance for all.”

In her remarks, Pearl thanked her own childhood librarian, Frances Whitehead, the children’s librarian at the Parkman Branch of the Cleveland Public Library, “who took this miserably unhappy eight-year-old girl that I was and gave me the world through the books she recommended.” And she graciously shared the award with her fellow librarians.

“I am, I believe, the first librarian to win this award, and I’m dedicating it to all of the librarians who do such essential work for their communities,” Pearl said in her acceptance speech. “One of the foundational principles of the public library is that it is a truly egalitarian institution, available free to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, age, or economic status—and as such, it is a democratizing and unifying force in our society, which is needed now more than ever before.”

In November, PW columnist Sari Feldman praised Pearl for inspiring not only countless readers but also her fellow librarians.

“Like many librarians, I knew about Nancy Pearl well before I ever got the chance to know her,” she wrote. “There were the standing room only Book Buzz events at Public Library Association conferences, her ‘Book Lust’ title picks, her popular NPR show, and, of course, the now famous Archie McPhee librarian action figure she inspired. But getting to know Nancy changed me personally, as a librarian as well as a reader, and it set me off on a new professional trajectory.”

Congratulations, Nancy. Thank you for all you do.