Interview: Michael Kelley, Library Journal News & Features Editor

By DPLA, February 22, 2012.
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Michael Kelley is the Executive Editor of news and features for the popular magazine Library Journal and a frequent contributor to The Digital Shift, a Library Journal blog covering topics related to libraries and new media. Last week, we had the good fortune to speak with Michael via email about current events in the library e-book market.

DPLA: The big news recently has been Penguin’s decision to terminate its contract with OverDrive, the biggest digital content supplier to public libraries in the US. As it stands, three of the “Big Six” publishers do not lend ebooks to libraries (Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and now Penguin). For those unfamiliar with the e-lending situation, could you sketch out some of the more significant events predating this one between the major trade publishers and libraries over ebook lending?

Michael Kelley: I would say, from the viewpoint of a typical librarian in a public library, OverDrive’s introduction of Kindle compatibility in September was a huge event. OverDrive was able to increase its customer base by over a third through its association with Amazon, and librarians no longer had to explain to patrons why they couldn’t use the most popular ereader to borrow library books.

Unfortunately, the OverDrive-Amazon partnership really upset the publishers, who didn’t like the idea of a library transaction becoming an Amazon transaction, and this played a role in Penguin’s decision to terminate its contract with OverDrive this month. HarperCollins’s introduction of a 26-loan cap in February 2011 was also a big event that angered many librarians, but the criticism has been more muted recently, given that Harper still makes its entire portfolio available while other Big Six publishers more strictly limit access to their front and backlist. I thought it was interesting that NYPL told me recently that they have 5000 plus ebooks from HarperCollins and not one has yet hit the cap, and I doubt items in the long tail will every approach it.

DPLA: ALA leaders met recently with a number of execs from the major publishers to discuss ebook lending. Molly Raphael, President of the ALA, seemed relatively optimistic about the meetings, suggesting a new long-term dialogue between publishers and libraries. From your understanding, do these talks signal anything new? Is there reason to believe that libraries and major publishers are on their way to sorting through the fundamental issues?

MK: It’s hard to say. I think ALA’s membership is very happy to see Molly Raphael and Keith Fiels taking a more active approach, but there is concern that this will drag on while many librarians are impatient for a resolution now. Many public librarians view access to best-selling titles as their meat and potatoes, and every day they have to tell patrons they cannot provide them access to these digital titles gives them an unjustified black eye. ALA has limited power and resources, but it’s constructive to have a temperate discussion with publishers, to acknowledge and appreciate their genuine anxiety. I am looking forward to reading a report from Stan Besen that ALA has commissioned about ebook business models. It was supposed to be out in December, but they are still working on it last I heard.

DPLA: Douglas County Libraries in Colorado has emerged in recent months as a potentially viable alternative to leased digital content in public libraries. What exactly have they done so far, and what do they hope to accomplish? In your estimation, what are the possible implications?

MK: Douglas County is replicating the print model for digital content. They bought an Adobe Content Server and they struck deals with various publishers (none of the Big Six) to purchase (truly purchase, not lease access to) the ebook file, house it on the library server, and manage the DRM. They convinced the participating publishers that the library had the requisite technological safeguards in place to protect the rightholders’ intellectual content. The model reaffirms the library’s traditional role as a reliable steward of such content. I find it interesting that some library vendors will pitch an “ownership model,” knowing how this resonates with librarians. But the fine print always shows that the libraries are not really gaining ownership of the content in these deals, like they are in Douglas County. Jamie LaRue has been talking with other libraries in Colorado about ways to replicate the model elsewhere. It’s a very concrete, activist approach that deserves attention and support.

DPLA: There’s been a lot of well-publicized talk and a few exemplary cases of public libraries that have emerged as read/write spaces, or libraries that devote a significant amount of their resources to facilitate creativity and production in addition to reading and other traditional activities. Where do ebooks fit into this transition?

MK: Yes there’s a lot of talk about remaking library space as use of print collections dwindles. Ebooks are a part of that and I also wonder what the impact of streaming video will have on library traffic and circulation numbers over the next few years. Espresso print machines, music studios, gaming contests are all ways to keep people coming to the library.

DPLA: From your perspective as a library news reporter, what are some trends in libraries and library lending that we’re bound to hear more about over the next few years?  

MK: I hope we will see non-participating publishers launching pilot programs to test the library waters and reassure themselves that a library lending model is possible for digital as well as print. It’s important that reporting on the issue is accurate. For example, Hachette Group is frequently said to not make its ebooks available for library lending, but it does make its backlist available up until April 2010. Amazon’s Lending Library now has over 100,000 titles. I wonder what that means. It’s also important not to forget small and rural libraries and the whole digital divide, which is where DPLA’s efforts could be especially interesting. And I am very interested to see where the open access movement is going, since it seems particularly galvanized by RWA (Research Works Act) at the moment. Also, preservation and copyright issues (particularly court cases impacting First Sale). There’s a lot to cover!

Photo courtesy of Andrew Mason on Flickr; used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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