Friday, January 27, 2012

At ALA Midwinter, Librarians Show Some Fight

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that certainly held true for the issues facing librarians at the American Library Association’s 2012 Midwinter Meeting, held January 20–24 in Dallas. In a climate of stretched budgets, ever-more-complex technology, copyright and legislative issues, and a lingering question over library lending of e-books, the issues facing libraries have never been more serious. And after a 2011 that saw little progress—and, in fact, regression on some fronts, such as e-books—in Dallas librarians signaled that they are determined to take more control of their future in 2012.

The show’s theme—“The Conversation Starts Here”—carried a message of what ALA president Molly Raphael characterized as empowerment, and it was a theme that resonated throughout the conference. The centerpiece of the program was a session called “Empowering Voices, Transforming Communities.” Conducted over two afternoons, it involved hours of “deep conversation” among librarians about the evolving roles of libraries and the communities they serve, led by Syracuse University professor R. David Lankes, author of The Atlas of New Librarianship.

The ALA Washington Office legislative session urged librarians not to wait for potential legislative solutions, but to more boldly assert their already existing—and legally sturdy—fair use rights in pursuing digitization projects. An afternoon session featured Kansas state librarian Jo Budler, who successfully fought vendor OverDrive for the right to move the state library’s e-book collection to a new 3M platform. The SPARC forum urged the scholarly community to get the “rights question” right—from promoting open access to the benefit of using Creative Commons licenses, and encouraging innovation on the Web—as well as fighting back against efforts like the recently introduced Research Works Act, a controversial bill that would forbid federal agencies from making publicly funded research freely available to taxpayers.

One of the more inspiring panels was presented by the librarians who assembled the now famous library at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, who spoke eloquently about the central role of sharing information in our democracy.

The E-book Question

Perhaps no issue at ALA loomed larger than the question of library lending of e-books. And at the January 21 meeting of ALA’s Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries, officials announced they had arranged meetings from January 30 to February 1 in New York with publishers currently restricting e-book lending, including Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin. In his remarks, ALA executive director Keith Fiels sounded determined to come away from those meetings with progress. “At this point we need to be very persistent and insistent,” Fiels told PW.

Fiels praised the cooperation of the Association of American Publishers for openness and for facilitating ALA conversations with individual publishers. “AAP has been very good about providing us with contact information and suggestions, and, for example, in each of the upcoming meetings with Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, we’re told we will be talking with their CEOs,” he said. Fiels noted, however, that after a year in which library e-book lending took a step backwards, progress on the issue in 2012 was crucial. “When we talk about having a dialogue, it is, ‘Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, you need to start making e-books available to libraries,’ ” Fiels said. “Now, let’s have a dialogue.”

The Stakes

Not everything was bigger in Texas, however—attendance at the 2012 ALA Midwinter dipped to its lowest level in years. Total attendees, including registrants and exhibitors, numbered 9,929, down from 10,110 in San Diego last year, and 11,095 in Boston in 2010. However, the dip was not unexpected—and the number actually looks pretty strong considering the ongoing budget crisis pinching library travel budgets and the upcoming Public Library Association Meeting, March 12–17, in Philadelphia.

For more coverage of ALA Midwinter, check out PW's library landing page. And look for our preview of the 2012 PLA meeting, coming in the February 27 issue.