Let’s Talk about Ebooks

By DPLA, February 23, 2015.
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Books are among the richest artifacts of human culture. In the last half-millenium, we have written over a hundred million of them globally, and within their pages lie incredibly diverse forms of literature, history, and science, poetry and prose, the sacred and the profane. Thanks to our many partners, the Digital Public Library of America already contains over two million ebooks, fully open and free to read.

But we have felt since DPLA’s inception that even with the extent of our ebook collection, we could be doing much more to connect the public, in more frictionless ways, with the books they wish to read. It is no secret that the current landscape for ebooks is rocky and in many ways inhospitable to libraries and readers. Ebook apps are often complicated for new users, and the selection of ebooks a mere fraction of what is on the physical shelves. To their credit, publishers have become more open recently to sharing books through library apps and other digital platforms, but pricing, restrictions, and the availability of titles still vary widely.

At the same time, new models for provisioning ebooks are arising from within the library community. In Colorado, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, among other places, libraries and library consortia are exploring ways to expand their e-collections. Some are focusing on books of great local interest, such as genre writers within their areas or biographies of important state figures; others are working with small and independent publishers to provide a wider market for their works; and still others are attempting to recast the economics of ebook purchasing to the benefit of readers and libraries as well as publishers and authors through bulk purchases. Moreover, new initiatives such as the recent push from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to open access to existing works, and the Authors Alliance, which is helping authors to regain their book rights, offer new avenues for books to be made freely available.

At the DPLA, we are particularly enthusiastic about the role that our large and expanding national network of hubs can play. Many of our service hubs have already scanned books from their regions, and are generously sharing them through DPLA. Public domain works are being aggregated by content hubs such as HathiTrust, with more coming online every month. It is clear that we can bring these threads together to create a richer, broader tapestry of ebooks for readers of all ages and interests.

That’s why we’re delighted to announce today that we have received generous funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to start an in-depth discussion about ebooks and their future, and what DPLA and our partners can do to help push things forward. Along with the New York Public Library, a leader in library technology and services, we plan to intensify the discussions we have already been having with publishers, authors, libraries, and the public about how to connect the maximal number of ebooks with the maximal number of readers.

This conversation will be one of the central events at DPLAfest. If you haven’t registered for the fest yet, this is your call to join us in Indianapolis on April 17-18 to kick off this conversation about the future of ebooks. It is a critical discussion, and we welcome all ideas and viewpoints. We look forward to hearing your thoughts about ebooks in Indy, and in other discussions throughout 2015.