smart librarians and ebooks and dinosaurs, oh my

I haven’t weighed in on what I think of as the H-Cod fiasco (also known as the HarperCollins-Overdrive announcement in which HC has demanded that Overdrive limit library lending of licensed ebooks to 26, Twitterified as #hcod), largely because other smart people are talking about it more smartly than I can, and I knew that, left to their own devices, someone would say what I was thinking better than I would be able to.  And today, I got what I was looking for.

An ebook plan by Iris Jastram and Steve Lawson.

Steve and Iris are distinctly different people — Iris has more gentleness than I’ve seen in nearly anyone, and Steve is a noted contrarian smartass — but those differences make them a more potent thought-partnership. I think of them as being in the same category of librarian, in that I’ve had the pleasure of working with them both, and they are undoubtedly two of the most thoughtful and dedicated librarians I’ve met in academia. They do the kind of thinking and arguing that makes me sit back and think, “Well. That’s new. Except really logical. And maybe not new at all. But I hadn’t thought about it that way.” And then I wonder what it is about how their brains work that lets them make the connections they make.

And Iris’s chosen pull quote does just that.

“We believe that the publisher should publish, and the library should own, lend, and preserve.”

Well, yes.  That. That does make it pretty simple, doesn’t it? Publishers publish, and libraries own, lend, and preserve.  It’s what we do, and it’s who we are, on both sides of the equation. Similarly, I agree that

“The problem is not that the number of circulations set by the publisher is too small; the problem is that no publisher should be able to control these aspects–really any aspects–of the library’s workings.”

Amen to that, as well.  It’s hard enough running a library that effectively meets local user needs without adding an externally-motivated layer to our policies and procedures.  We should not agree to this. When we have agreed to these restrictions in the past — printing limits, complicated authentication processes, limits on downloads — we have regretted it as it played out in user confusion, increased internal workloads, and nigh-endless wrangling of licenses and contracts. We need to learn from that, and remember it.

The thing that gives me pause is that what Iris and Steve propose also requires a culture of respect and trust between publishers and the libraries that are their customers. I don’t believe that we’re there. I don’t think publishers have any respect for libraries, not when the motivating factor in their decision-making is a pairing of “profit” and “fear”.  I believe that the publishing industry is running scared, having watched their brother the Music Industry be eaten by lions, and that in their terror of what the digital future means for them, they’ve set their sights on an easy target: Libraries.  We’re the slow-moving behemoth that they can target while the smaller and faster (and more dangerous!) enemies are violating copyright and copying their property left, right, and center.  We’re the T-rex.  The average digital pirate is a raptor. Who’re you going to aim at?  The one you can hit.  So I get it. I can see why they want to “fix” libraries first.

The problem is that they see us as a problem. For Steve and Iris’s plan to work, they need to see us as partners.  Like Toby Greenwalt, I’m not sure that boycotts and protests and manifestos will get us to the boardroom as partners.  And if we don’t get there, they’re going to keep shooting until one of us dies.


  1. I’ve been working on the relationship issues between publishers and librarians for more than a decade and I’m sorry to tell you that the situation is the opposite of what you describe. Most people in publishing have tremendous respect for librarians and are eager to work with them. Librarians, however, have for the past decade demonized publishers, taking the worst examples of publisher behavior as emblematic of the whole tribe. The Chicago Collaborate, of which I’m a founding member, seeks to strike a better balance within the STM segment ( I’ve been going to publisher meetings and conferences for years. There are rarely any librarians in attendance. The publishers would love it if there were.


  2. T Scott, then that tells me that someone somewhere is doing a poor job of reaching out to librarians.

    For example… I just got an email from a publisher inviting me, generically addressed to “librarian”, to participate in a focus group at ACRL. But it’s billed as a game-show style panel in which the vendor pitches ideas on which we vote by holding up big numbered scorecards. I don’t want to attend a “high energy” panel designed to capture soundbites. I want our needs to be taken seriously and brought to the table. Maybe that was the vendor’s intention; they didn’t sell it well, if so.

    And then Proquest, after years of squirrely pricing practices, throws us a half-baked product launch and has to backpedal to fix it. And every year Elsevier ties us to the tracks and tells us to like it. And then HarperCollins says “screw you”, and EBSCO is pondering a similar model for netLibrary.

    You are describing the kind of relationship I’d appreciate seeing more of, but if, as you say, it’s the norm, why is it not better publicized? Why is it not perceived as the norm? Where do my experiences fit in with yours?

    I want collaboration to be our set-state, and to believe in the motives of publishers. But my experiences don’t mirror yours, so right now, I can’t.


  3. My consortium spends tens of thousands of dollars a year with OverDrive – my own library is a tiny part of that, but my patrons love it. LOVE LOVE LOVE it. They get access to a lot of stuff we can’t afford either in our primary budget or in space on the shelves (my library has a small footprint). As an existing and enthusiastic ebook peddler, I felt disappointed that we got the same press release as everyone else, and that it was presented as a done deal.

    The consortium’s next quarterly meeting hasn’t rolled around yet, but for now the plan is to boycott HC titles for the foreseeable future. Our consortium shares collection development duties, with various members of a sub-committee trading off through the year. Tracking how many 26-use books we have to purchase multiple times would further complicate an already time-consuming, volunteer-driven process. And it’s discouraging – even in my own small, rural library we talk to patrons every week about ebooks, help them get started with ADE and OverDrive, guide them to e-reader reviews and show off our own readers. I felt like “gee, thanks HC for cutting me off at the knees.”


  4. @T Scott. I’ve been to two publisher conferences – never again. I was not only not welcomed but librarian statements were met with open hostility. I was shocked, because the Physics- Astro-Math division of SLA has wonderful working relationships with our publishers. They involve us heavily in decisions and there is a lot of mutual support. As for Elsevier – yeah they’re exorbitant, but at least they talk to their users – a lot!


  5. Christina — sorry to hear about your experience. Mine is almost entirely within STM, so yes, mileage may vary. The Society for Scholarly Publishing is particularly welcoming to to librarians with a membership rate & conference attendance rate that is half that for publisher members. Their annual conference is in Boston in June. I’ve also had good experiences attending meetings of the International STM Association. Their spring meeting is DC in April and there are several librarians on the speaker roster.


  6. Jenica — I don’t mean to minimize the challenges. One of the problems for librarians is that most of the people in publishing that we actually interact with are sales reps and so the buyer/seller relationship dominates and it’s hard to get at the broader issues. I attended a presentation last fall that looked at the challenges facing physician/librarian relationships and was struck by how similar the issues were to librarian/publisher. I wrote a bit about it here:


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