More than 10,000 librarians, publishers, authors, and vendors will gather in Dallas, January 20–24, for the 2012 American Library Association Midwinter meeting. Among the meeting’s highlights: the announcement of the ALA’s Youth Media Awards, including the coveted Newbery and Caldecott medals; a bustling exhibit floor; and a strong author presence. Of course, ALA Midwinter is also known as the “get-things-done” meeting, where various groups and committees meet face-to-face to conduct their business and librarians discuss the issues facing the profession. When it comes to those issues and discussions, this year may be remembered as one of the most challenging ever for libraries.

Certainly, 2011 began with optimism. At last year’s Midwinter Meeting, in San Diego, librarians spoke with excitement of an explosion in demand for e-books after what one librarian called the “Kindle Christmas.” Both the Digital Book World Conference, in January, and Tools of Change, in February, followed with library panels for the first time, and they seemed to say all the right things. For all the words that were spoken, however, for all the good intentions and belief in the power of dialogue, actions tell a different story.

Louder than Words

For libraries, 2011 had its share of lowlights. HarperCollins announced that it was restricting its e-book lending to 26 lends per year. In Kansas, the state library found itself fighting with a vendor to move its e-book collections to a new platform. Three academic publishers went to trial over e-reserve practices at Georgia State University, asking the court for an injunction that observers say could dramatically affect the use of library materials in the educational realm. The Authors Guild is suing HathiTrust, a partnership of some 40 university libraries, over its efforts to scan and preserve millions of out-of-print and orphan works. And along the way, the Google settlement was nixed by a federal court. While some argue that may ultimately be a good thing, its immediate impact is yet another net loss of access.

The coup de grace, however, came just weeks ago, when Penguin, without warning, pulled its new e-books from OverDrive, citing unsubstantiated “security concerns.”

That Penguin might change its e-book policy is not surprising. The e-book question is a complex one, and though librarians may disagree, few would fault a publisher for making a decision it deemed necessary for survival. What rankles about the Penguin decision is that, for all the lip service paid to “dialogue” in 2011, Penguin officials made the move without warning, discussion, or formal notification—and they were less than forthcoming about what drove the decision. In the following weeks, as the questions and complaints rolled in, Penguin officials remained silent.

In an open letter to the publishing community, EarlyWord’s Nora Rawlinson, a former PW editor-in-chief, diplomatically explained the problem Penguin’s decision caused. “When a publisher changes its lending policy, libraries are the first to hear the complaints,” she wrote. “Penguin cut off lending over the weekend, leaving library users first confused, then angry. Since libraries didn’t receive notification until mid-day Monday [Nov. 21], they were left blind-sided. If there’s one thing a librarian hates, it’s not being able to answer a question.”

Commenters online offered a more blunt assessment. From Twitter and Facebook to comments on OverDrive’s and PW’s sites, they criticized Penguin’s move. Some blasted the publisher. Others, however, made a critical distinction—that OverDrive was now in the middle between libraries and their patrons. “I only found out about this because I had a book become available for download,” one commenter on OverDrive’s blog noted. “When I contacted the library about it, they didn’t even know what was going on.”

One librarian noted that, after asking OverDrive about an unavailable Kindle book on behalf of a patron, OverDrive replied that available titles “can change frequently as communicated to OverDrive by publishers,” which can cause some titles to no longer be available. “Try explaining that to a patron,” the commenter noted. “Our patrons are unhappy,” wrote another. “They want to know, rightly so, why they are funding the leasing of frequently unusable content via a frequently unusable product. Every library should be asking the same question.”

At last year’s Midwinter, digital librarian and Open Library founder Brewster Kahle urged librarians not to let a few corporations take control of the digital future. “What libraries do is buy stuff and lend it out,” he said, suggesting that libraries “digitize what we have to, and buy what we can,” but not to allow the promise of licensed, managed access turn libraries into agents for a few major corporations. “We do so at our peril,” he said. A year later, those comments ring true.

The Future Is Now

“The numbers speak for themselves,” says William Rodgers, library resources division manager at the Hennepin County Library (HCL) in Minnesota. “It has been a great year for e-books.” As of November 2011, Rodgers says, Hennepin has 29,629 “copies” of 20,401 titles, managed by OverDrive. In the first 11 months of the year, the library logged 260,954 circulations. And while those numbers represent a fraction of the library’s overall collection and circulation, the growth—and the demand—is eye opening.

In the summer of 2010, HCL logged 1,500 e-book lends. In January of 2011, that had risen to 10,656. And in October, monthly lends stood at 34,551. In less than two months since the September launch of Kindle lending, HCL logged 21,322 Kindle lends.

“This has been an exciting year, tracking e-book usage,” Rodgers says. “We will look to this information to begin to establish a baseline for e-book usage to identify trends to help with future purchases. And the next year will also bring new e-book users, as the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, and iPad2 make their way into new hands.”

As these new devices come into use, it remains to be seen what libraries will be able to lend to them. Of the big six publishers, only one, Random House, fully embraces e-book lending. And there are dollars at stake. In 2010, HCL’s e-book budget was $35,000. This year, it was $350,000. In 2012, it will grow again, Rodgers says, but only to about $400,000, nowhere near in line with the rate of demand. “The primary reason,” Rodger says, “is limited availability of titles. Not all titles we are looking to purchase are available to be purchased in e-book format.”

As e-books continue to surge in popularity, 2012 looms as a critical year. If libraries cannot lend popular, current e-books, they risk being seen as outmoded. As Bloomsbury managing director Evan Schnittman once observed, once someone makes a decision to switch to an e-reader they are essentially lost to print—and that point may be especially true for libraries.

In the most tone-deaf lines of the brief statement issued by Penguin after pulling its frontlist e-books, the publisher assured librarians that they could still buy those titles in print. That, however, is useless to the hundreds of thousands of consumers who will find a new e-reader in their stockings this Christmas, and to the librarians who will try to explain to those readers why the library is unable to meet their needs.

Best Customers

As Rawlinson noted in her open letter to publishers, “Libraries are not only your customers, they are your business partners.”

If one needs further proof that libraries are true partners in the publishing business, one need look no further than the author track at ALA Midwinter. The Auditorium Speaker Series features a slew of leading authors and authorities across all genres, including adult and young adult fiction, technology, and popular culture. Among those slated to attend: Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown, Jan.), who will talk about how dramatically our culture misunderstands and undervalues introverts in this increasingly social world.

John Green, wildly popular among librarians, will address how social networking relates to literature—and how librarians can reach patrons through fun and inventive social networking. Green has more than 1,125,000 Twitter followers and his “vlogbrothers” YouTube channel has 500,000 subscribers and almost 125 million downloads. Green’s appearance at Midwinter is sponsored by Penguin Young Readers and kicks off the tour for his upcoming book, The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, Jan.).

As 2012 opens, we can all agree that conversation is good. And librarians and publishers must continue to talk. At the same time, actions matter. And with the events of 2011 still fresh in their minds—from the scaling back of e-book lending to lawsuits in federal court—librarians must consider the limits of what conversation can achieve, and what actions they can take.