Excerpts from my interview in PW from May 25,2012
At the 2012 ALA conference in Anaheim, Maureen Sullivan, a long time consultant to numerous libraries of all types, will officially begin her yearlong term as president of ALA. Sullivan will take over for Molly Raphael, who worked tirelessly in the last year on behalf of ALA on a range of issues—notably the lingering e-book question.
Sullivan is also professor of practice in the managerial leadership program at the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science—and her membership will be counting on her to provide leadership, as 2012 promises to be another challenging year. PW caught up with Sullivan to talk about her goals and about the task at the top of ALA’s to-do list: e-books.
Congratulations on your upcoming inauguration as ALA president.
Thank you. I’m looking forward to it. When I was asked to run for this office, I immediately said yes because it was a chance to give back to the field, and to ALA. Without ALA I would not have had the career I have, nor the support network, relationships, or the wonderful professional development experiences I’ve enjoyed. I think ALA continues to be the very best place for professional development, and through a range of activities, not just at the conferences but webinars, toolkits, and publications. I think ALA has become a great resource, whether dealing with issues around censorship or public policy, ALA has developed the capability to support its members in many arenas. I also think that, as an association, we’ve done very well in identifying trends and helping people with those trends in practice.
What are some of your goals for your year in office?
When I ran, I talked about four things: literacy, learning, leadership, and international relations. One of the members of the ALA international roundtable said the “L” you can use there is links—as in links around the world. One of the particular things I’m moving forward on is the promise of libraries to transform communities. We’re hoping to work with Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute on this, and what I’d like to do to help create a sustainable capability within ALA to support community development.
The e-book question remains at the top of the agenda, too, and I know outgoing president Molly Raphael has done a lot of good work on this. What are your expectations here?
I expect more work on this issue, and I have to say it is Molly’s expectation as well, and she made sure to include me in the meetings she had in New York in January and February. From the beginning, she said, “Maureen is here because we expect these discussions to continue,” so there will be continuity, and that was really great of her.
You have an academic background, and the academic world has been through a digital transition before. Is that a helpful experience to have now that the transition has come to trade books?
Yes, I was at Yale when the e-journal transition started, and generally, I’m always one who looks for what we can learn from other experiences. [Columbia University Librarian] James Neal gave me a couple hours of his time, and one of the things he said to me was, “Remember, we’ve had this experience before with the e-journal issue, and there is a lot for us to learn from that.” What I think is different for us, now, is that it is not just a small number of people who recognize we have to deal with this issue. And what makes me optimistic is the willingness of the stakeholders to engage in discussions.
I think another thing that will help us is that the reading public really values libraries. There is an increasing recognition of libraries needing to be able to lend books in these various formats. One of the special values of libraries is that we deal with all readers—with the digital natives as well as people who want nothing to do with digital. And we all have people in all of our communities who can’t afford devices or to purchase materials. As librarians, we want to continue to serve our communities, and we want to continue to have productive relationships with publishers. And we know what we have in common—librarians and publishers want to have a reading public.
I’ve heard from some publishers that the conversations are starting to yield some progress. Do you think the e-book issue might break in your year in office?
I am really hopeful, and if it does, I’d like Molly to get the credit, and I would make sure Molly does get the credit. There are many ways to characterize the conversations, but again everyone’s willingness to keep talking is really important. And I have to credit Harvard’s Berkman Center [for Internet and Society] for this: one of the things that has emerged is a four-quadrant model to capture the theme of this discussion. There is the need for education—that is, to help people understand the issues, what the options are, what the opportunities are, and the challenges. Second, we need to have as many pilots or experiments as possible going on in the field. Another is the need for data. We’ve discovered a set of myths, and we want to makes sure we replace those myths with reality—let’s understand where we are making assumptions, and let’s get back to facts. I’ve been heartened to discover that most of the distributors or aggregators do have data that can be shared. And fourth is the importance of communication. We need to keep having these discussions.
Do you have any observations about the political environment? We seem to be in a “less government” push during this campaign season, and I wonder if that has any effect on the ability of libraries to compete for funding?
I think the way we advocate for more support is to demonstrate what we do. I think the whole e-book issue is giving us a very special opportunity to really demonstrate our value, and not only the value of libraries but the work of librarians.
I am proud to say that we are still very focused on our ebook agenda and will continue to work with publishers as much as possible to change the current state of the ebook market to libraries.
Below is the full text from my open letter to America’s publishers from September 28th, 2012 regarding Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin refusal to provide access to their e-books in U.S. libraries.
“It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is “no good here.” Surprisingly, after centuries of enthusiastically supporting publishers’ products, libraries find themselves in just that position with purchasing e-books from three of the largest publishers in the world. Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin have been denying access to their e-books for our nation’s 112,000 libraries and roughly 169 million public library users.
Let’s be clear on what this means: If our libraries’ digital bookshelves mirrored the New York Times fiction best-seller list, we would be missing half of our collection any given week due to these publishers’ policies. The popular “Bared to You” and “The Glass Castle” are not available in libraries because libraries cannot purchase them at any price. Today’s teens also will not find the digital copy of Judy Blume’s seminal “Forever,” nor today’s blockbuster “Hunger Games” series.
Not all publishers are following the path of these three publishers. In fact, hundreds of publishers of e-books have embraced the opportunity to create new sales and reach readers through our nation’s libraries. One recent innovation allows library patrons to immediately purchase an e-book if the library doesn’t have a copy or if there is a wait list they would like to avoid. This offers a win-win relationship for both publishers and library users since recent research from the Pew Internet Project tells us that library users are more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library.
Libraries around the country are developing mobile applications and online discovery systems that make it easier to explore books and authors on the go. Seventy-six percent of public libraries now offer e-books — double the number from only five years ago — and 39 percent of libraries have purchased and circulate e-readers. Public libraries alone spend more than $1.3 billion annually on their collections of print, audio, video, and electronic materials. They are investing not only in access to content and devices, but also in teaching the skills needed to navigate and utilize digital content successfully.
Librarians understand that publishing is not just another industry. It has special and important significance to society. Libraries complement and, in fact, actively support this industry by supporting literacy and seeking to spread an infectious and lifelong love of reading and learning. Library lending encourages patrons to experiment by sampling new authors, topics and genres. This experimentation stimulates the market for books, with the library serving as a de facto discovery, promotion and awareness service for authors and publishers.
Publishers, libraries and other entities have worked together for centuries to sustain a healthy reading ecosystem — celebrating our society’s access to the complete marketplace of ideas. Given the obvious value of libraries to publishers, it simply does not add up that any publisher would continue to lock out libraries. It doesn’t add up for me, it doesn’t add up for ALA’s 60,000 members, and it definitely doesn’t add up for the millions of people who use our libraries every month.
America’s libraries have always served as the “people’s university” by providing access to reading materials and educational opportunity for the millions who want to read and learn but cannot afford to buy the books they need. Librarians have a particular concern for vulnerable populations that may not have any other access to books and electronic content, including individuals and families who are homebound or low-income. To deny these library users access to e-books that are available to others — and which libraries are eager to purchase on their behalf — is discriminatory.
We have met and talked sincerely with many of these publishers. We have sought common ground by exploring new business models and library lending practices. But these conversations only matter if they are followed by action: Simon & Schuster must sell to libraries. Macmillan must implement its proposed pilot. Penguin must accelerate and expand its pilots beyond two urban New York libraries.
We librarians cannot stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide. We cannot wait passively while some publishers deny access to our cultural record. We must speak out on behalf of today’s — and tomorrow’s — readers.The library community demands meaningful change and creative solutions that serve libraries and our readers who rightfully expect the same access to e-books as they have to printed books.
So, which side will you be on? Will you join us in a future of liberating literature for all? Libraries stand with readers, thinkers, writers, dreamers and inventors. Books and knowledge — in all their forms — are essential. Access to them must not be denied.”
My official trip to the AAP offices in NYC from later that week.
“Last week, I led an ALA delegation to New York City to meet with publishers to discuss the many concerns of the library community about ebook publishing. Uppermost in our minds were the ebook concerns that have come to us from ALA members across the country—especially about pricing and availability (or the lack thereof) and the slow pace of progress in finding solutions. I expressed these concerns at a September 27 meeting hosted by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and attended by about 100 staff from the publishing houses.
In the wake of an ALA statement on price increases by Hachette and the issuance of an ALA open letter to publishers, the delegation (which included ALA President-Elect Barbara Stripling, Immediate Past President Molly Raphael, Digital Content and Libraries Working Group Cochair Robert Wolven, and Office for Information Technology Policy Director Alan S. Inouye) had felt a bit of ambivalence about these meetings before the trip. I am pleased to report that we experienced a series of frank, thought-provoking, cordial, and productive discussions that culminated in a hopeful feeling as we left New York.
There have been press reports on the AAP session and so I won’t provide an overview here. We achieved consensus on one important point, namely the necessity for an increased focus on the future to find effective ways to resolve the issues surrounding ebooks rather than to dwell on past policies and practices. For example, one publishing representative asked, “What would libraries like to see in three years?” This led to a discussion in which Bob Wolven shared some of the work being done by the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group on possible business models for library ebook services.
Another key takeaway from the AAP session is the need for further education and understanding by all parties. We are in the midst of a digital publishing revolution in which everything is changing and becoming ever more complex and interconnected. For ALA, this means stepping up our efforts to provide educational resources for our members, including library community leaders, about the publishing ecosystem in a digital environment. Also, we need to determine how to help publishers increase their understanding of library needs and preferences.
I would like to thank the AAP for organizing this session and for brokering communication opportunities between its member publishing houses and ALA during the past year. Although libraries and publishers and their respective associations disagree on some significant policies, we do agree that continuing communication is immensely critical.
Meetings with individual publishing houses
We were encouraged by what we learned in our meeting with Penguin executives. They vigorously reaffirmed Penguin’s strong commitment to the library market. In the coming months, the company plans to broaden its current ebook pilot to sites beyond New York. We also gained a better understanding of the process involved in bringing a service to market within a diverse global organization.
In support of ALA’s increasing ebook focus in the school library and children and youth segments, we met separately with executives of Rosen Publishing and Scholastic. These companies have a long tradition of working successfully with the library community. At the Rosen Publishing visit, which included CEO Roger Rosen, the delegation discussed trends and major issues for the school library ebook market. Additionally, we received a demonstration of Rosen’s impressive interactive ebooks, which are available to school libraries at reasonable prices.
At Scholastic, we enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion of the important role of school libraries in the educational process with a contingent that included the publishing house’s CEO Dick Robinson. We discussed digital content issues and ebooks in particular, including the specific services already offered to the school library and children and youth markets. We learned that Scholastic is exploring ways to extend its new Storia product, released in July 2012, to the library market.
Our separate meetings with HarperCollins, Random House, and Hachette were also productive. A common challenge (and opportunity) discussed at these meetings is the complexity and continuing evolution of the marketplace. In particular, the ebook path from author to library involves multiple intermediate entities, such as agents, distributors, and retailers, whose concerns must be included in order to effectively address publisher-library issues.
What innovations might promote our common goal of bringing authors and readers together? The “buy-it-now” button is generally viewed by the library community as an acceptable development. Are there other ways in which libraries can help to promote the discoverability and sales of books that also advance the library mission and are consistent with library values? We had good discussions of possible ways to make progress.
We concluded this latest round of visits on Friday evening, September 28, heartened by the goodwill and positive intentions that were expressed. Of course, this alone will not fill our libraries’ virtual shelves with ebooks. We look forward to positive developments from publishers in the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. We will continue to pursue our strategy of heightened advocacy and publisher engagement. This is likely to include several initiatives that emerged from last week’s meetings.”