Toward a Library-Publisher Complex for the digital era: Where the money is for both sides

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The Military-Industrial Complex in Alexandria…

I live in the Washington suburbs, where “Military-Industrial Complex” is more than just rhetoric in an Eisenhower speech from 1961. Just across 1-395 from me, here in Alexandria, Virginia, loom the twin towers of the $1+ billion Quarter Pentagon, featured in this Army Corps of Engineers video bragging of its size.

Perhaps a lesson for publishers and librarians? As I see it, a Library-Publisher Complex could boost the number of library e-books and other items—along with American education. Even the military could ultimately come out ahead, given the eventual national security benefits of improved K-12 performance in an era of more sophisticated warfare, as well as a better-informed electorate smarter about geo-political issues. What’s more, a Library-Publisher Complex could meaningfully enrich publishers of all sizes just as lobbying by the Military-Industrial Complex has reeled in endless billions for the Pentagon and defense contractors. Doubt the opportunities here? Well, next time a librarian or publisher frets about “disruption” of existing business models, here’s the question to ask both sides in the copyright wars: “How much revenue, how much ‘business’ in that sense, are you getting now?”

Why not a Library-Publisher Complex, too?

If we’re talking about books and other content, the answer is “precious little” compared to better possibilities for the digital era such as a well-funded, well-stocked national digital library system that would pay content-providers fairly but also respect the taxpayers and avoid the library equivalents of the Pentagon’s $600 toilet seats. Libraries and publishers should fret less about the division of the pie and worry more about its size.

Call it market development; or call it patriotism. Or call it the need to rise above the abysmal status quo and work not only to grow collections but also expand family literacy efforts and other programs so people actually are reading—especially K-12 students whose academic achievement so much reflects the extent of their exposure to books, just as eSchool News columnist Nora Carr has written. America’s public libraries were spending a mere $4.41 per capita on books and other major print and electronic categories in their collections in fiscal year 2009, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Look at Page 181 of the IMLS’s valuable annual survey, available here as a PDF. Just as outrageous were the shocking variations among states, from $7.53 for Ohio down to $1.53 for Mississippi (and, if you want to include U.S. territories mentioned on Page 126, just 16 cents for Guam and 35 cents for Puerto Rico). Library patrons in Ohio and Mississippi might as well live in different countries.

Nor is life so cheery on the retail side for books and other reading. As observed in an earlier post—Not enough library e-books to feed your new gadget properly? Well-stocked national digital public library systems could help—around .2 percent of the average wage-earning American household’s annual expenditures are for books and other “reading” (textbooks excluded). That’s $115, a speck of the $2,600 spent on “entertainment.” And this on top of the fact that 40 percent of us lack disposable income after paying for food, housing transportation and other necessities (partly because the wealth and income levels of different socioeconomic classes have so strikingly diverged)! Will Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the rest care fully about the 40 percent? Instead such a mission should be very much within the turf of public libraries reinvented for the digital era, particularly since an important part of their mission will ideally be to elevate mass literacy and expand the universe of regular readers. Consider, too, that about 70 percent of Americans hold library cards, and that the Internet has whetted people’s appetite for “free.” At the same time remember that, at least when they can afford it, many borrowers become buyers.

Far better politically and far more practical in general for publishers and other content providers to enjoy a tailwind than fight a headwind, even with help from political contributions, which, as shown by the 2012 election results, may go only so far in the long run. When I put “Library” ahead of “Publisher” in calling for The Complex (even though “Publisher” came first in an earlier reference), I am not in the least dissing publishers but rather suggesting that the L word, if mentioned first, could work more magic in enlisting the public’s sympathies.

I can even see the name as Library-School-Publisher Complex, or the LSPC. But for now, in the interest of simplicity, let’s focus on the librarians and publishers. Here’s what I’m thinking in that regard.

220px-Tom_Allen_110th_Congressional_portraitmaureensullivan_thumbAs persuaders, American Library Association President Maureen Sullivan (and her staff) and former congress member Tom Allen, president of the American Association of Publishers, along with his staff, should reach out to each other to discuss common interests and truly large-scale joint efforts on Capitol Hill and at the White House. Ideally they can convince President Obama to include the national digital library issue in the forthcoming State of the Union address. No need for a detailed proposal at this stage (although, in Obama’s place, I would try to line up some well-known philanthropists to pledge support and would mention them in the address, so we all knew that the library could definitely happen in one form or another regardless to the extent of immediate support from The Hill). Let’s just get the library idea on the national agenda, and ALA and the AAP are the two associations best fit to do this. I know Maureen and can see her as open to compromise if the rest of the ALA will remember what’s at stake here financially, and beyond that, she is an much-valued participant in the Digital Library of America initiative, from which could emerge two separate but tightly intertwined e-library systems for the United States, one public and one academic. If the result instead is one system, I’ll try to be as understanding as I can. But two would be better, for reasons I’ve spelled out at length on the site and at In Tom Allen’s place, I would not summarily dismiss the dual system approach since it would probably end up as more trade publisher-friendly than a system dominated by academics who were not accustomed to dealing with literature for the masses.

Now more on Allen—starting with a reminder that, even if he is receptive to the idea of a fairly paying national digital library system, he’ll still have to convince his board members before AAP takes a stand. He is a complete stranger to me, but I hope to remedy that. From afar, he seems approachable, complete with a publicly given e-mail address, and his background suggests a good mix of experience among both the elite and the grassroots. He is an ex-Rhodes scholar; an alum of Harvard Law School, the incubator of the DPLA; an ex-staffer for the late Sen. Edmund Muskie; and former city council member and ex-mayor of Portland, Maine. Perhaps most helpfully of all, his 12 years on Capitol Hill included time on the House Budget Committee. I can recall at least one key DPLA participant pleading lack of familiarity with the D.C. lobbying scene. Get Allen on your side, and you could fix that in a hurry. A pipe dream? Not necessarily if both sides—publishers and library advocates, not just the ALA but other groups such as the DPLA—are willing to budge. Allen himself is author of a just-published Washington book whose main title nicely sums up the copyright wars even if they presumably weren’t on his mind in that context: Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress. As described by Oxford University Press, Allen’s book “argues that what’s really wrong with Congress is the widening, hardening conflict in worldviews that leaves the two parties unable to understand how the other thinks about what people should do on their own and what we should do together. Members of Congress don’t just disagree, they think the other side makes no sense…”

It’s subjective, of course—what’s “dangerous” and what’s logical and essential. I myself view the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act as egregious excess, and I truly, truly loathe the restrictions on breaking DRM for legitimate purposes within the limits of fair use (for example, to read a Kindle book on your big Android tablet in a font more legible than anything Jeff Bezos and friends offer in their products). The latter foolishness, as I see it, is zealotry codified into law and an anti-consumer attack on property rights. It is also a reduction of the value of books as a permanent medium. Very much in a similar vein, I believe in the first-sale doctrine and the ability of libraries to treat e-books like paper books and lend one purchased copy at a time to an unlimited number of borrows, with interlibrary loans as a possibility. Too bad that so many questions now exist about the doctrine in regard to e-books and other electronic items, not just paper ones.

But wait! I can also sympathize with the publishers in some important respects and do not see mere changes in copyright law as the ultimate solution to the real e-book-related problem for public libraries, the measly $4.41 spent annually per capita on print and digital content. Most books and other items that public library patrons want are relatively recent and commercial. Just how can libraries accommodate the taxpayers via copyright changes alone without the revised laws royally screwing publishers through hyper-short copyright terms? Even an iron-clad, unassailable doctrine of first sale would hardly be a way out. Too many patrons, in too many locations, are after hot new books.

I can also understand other concerns of publishers. Some librarians love to talk about all the money they’re saving patrons who check out books rather than buy them. Talk about red meat for the lions—the copyright lobby!

Far better for the two sides to make peace and experiment with a variety of business models, including payment per access. That wouldn’t be the 100 percent owned-book scenario dear to so many librarians under right of first sale. But if the money is there, through joint publisher-library lobbying and through endowments from private sources, things actually can be more sustainable than now. If nothing else, remember that many libraries regularly weed their paper collections to keep them current. So it isn’t as if they’re necessarily buying books forever, anyway

Yet another issue is anti-trust, rather germane in the wake of the Justice Department’s recent tangles with publishers over price fixing. The AAP will want to steer clear of those rocks and shoals. But while not an anti-trust lawyer or any other kind, I suspect that can be dealt with. Just what law would prevent the AAP and library groups from lobbying together on the Hill? Meanwhile Maureen Sullivan and other librarians could continue talks with individual publishers and exchange what-ifs and get a sense of what the various houses needed—something to consider in coming up with the enabling legislation for a full-strength national digital library system or systems. AAP staffers at the same time could monitor the crafting of the legislation to work toward terms fair to content providers, while Maureen’s people watched out for library interests. Perhaps I’m wrong, but one way or another, the players could shape their strategies and tactics to avoid legal difficulties. As a last resort, is it possible that, if need be, some changes could be made in anti-trust legislation with libraries and publishers specifically in mind?

Still another issue is, what to do about streaming movies and other nonbook items? I myself would recommend inclusion of, say, classic movies; but don’t start out playing video rental shop in a big way. The reason is obvious to me. As shown by the .2 percent that reading materials are claiming of wage-earning household expenditures, Americans are spending too little on books—the best encouragers of sustained thought—compared to rival media. Not because of book prices but because of the small number of books they buy per capita. A national digital library system or systems would help compensate for this by growing the number of regular readers.

Granted, Washington is now fixated on budgetary matters. But that will pass in time, and if publishers and librarians can de-escalate their copyright wars and actually collaborate closely on pie-growing and on coming up with a sufficiently compelling vision, then a scaled-up national digital library initiative could become a reality. Despite questions lingering about the extent and nature of the DPLA’s responsiveness so far to public library needs, this nonprofit could be an excellent starting point, given the prominence and caliber of its key participants and the grants it has already drawn from IMLS, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and others. What’s more, a DPLA demo library will be launching soon. In other words, the DPLA could be an easier sell than before to major philanthropists, so that it or a successor needn’t immediately receive massive funding from governments at various levels. One way to reduce permanent funding requirements would be to offer a fee-based rental service. It could include breaks for low-income people and be tightly integrated with the main library catalog—as a true library-oriented service, not just a full-service rental version of Amazon, where half the of the top ten of its best-sellers in 2012 were erotic romances. Perhaps Americans could even enroll in the public library rental service via a check-off on tax forms. Ultimately, though, rental service or not, you can’t create and maintain a truly excellent national digital library system on the cheap.

Of course, not all the obstacles are financial or are directly related to publisher-librarian wars. Some publishers may feel more comfortable with traditional books—in paper or electronic form—than with interactive books or with contracts for the provision of services such as curated wikis. Both book industry and library groups could help with the transition.

Within the library world, some of the biggest challenges may come from local and state librarians worried about a national system reducing their autonomy; and that’s all the more reason why I envision separate public and academic systems at the national level, so public librarians don’t lose out to academics. I’d also recommend that librarians think less about current job descriptions and more about the many ways they could genuinely help society in the digital era. And I’m not just talking about customization of the national collection for local patrons, or reinvented face-to-face references services. Who says all paper books must vanish? Just the other day on Linked-In, I ran across a scenario mapped out by a youth services librarian in the Midwest. Subject to the approval of her boss, she would like to eventually “force adult services and their paltry book collection, along with their outdated tablets and e-readers, upstairs to the smaller area of the library and take over the downstairs as the most amazing youth services area ever. We will have early literacy play spaces, thousands of picture books and graphic novels and beginning chapter books and easy readers (because my circulation has literally quadrupled in the past four years), makerspaces, a huge teen area where the kids can hang out without being yelled at and have their own computers (and no adults looking at porn and freaking my middle schoolers out!)…” She can also envision the presence of “kids from the special education school,” as well as “quiet spaces for homework and group projects and parents with upset babies. Oddly enough, since I explained this awesome idea to my director and colleagues, I haven’t heard anything more about e-books taking over.”

Notice the mentions of “early literacy play spaces” and “thousands of picture books” and the rest? And then imagine the librarians onsite to inspire the young readers and gently nudge them toward text-heavy books—electronic or paper—as well. This scenario isn’t right for every local library branch, granted. Furthermore, in my own scenario the children would already own powerful low-cost machines for use anywhere and would rely more on E than the youth services librarian  apparently anticipates, especially with a national digital library system stuffed with books matching the kids’ exact needs and interests. I’d also call for family literacy sessions and parents playing more of a role than described, especially as enthusiastic readers themselves—as role models. Still, I’m impressed. The Midwestern librarian’s vision is a good example of the resourcefulness of the most gifted people in her profession. Clearly the library world can serve society in new ways and at the same time, as a matter of course, expand the market for juvenile books and others; you’ll never be a buyer without being a reader first. If I were Tom Allen, I would see more than a little opportunity in this scenario and in a Library-Publisher Complex, as opposed to simply an Amazonian future that more or less leaves out the 40 percent.

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