Ann Arbor Library Frames Tech Issues

eBooks cited as challenge for future of public libraries

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (March 21, 2011): Monday’s meeting of the AADL board included an animated discussion about how digital books are transforming the publishing industry, and the impact those changes are having on public libraries.

Eli Neiburger avatar

The avatar for Eli Neiburger – or click the photo to see how he looks in real life. Neiburger has been named by Library Journal as one of its 2011 Movers & Shakers.

The topic stemmed from a report by AADL director Josie Parker, who described her experience at a recent working group meeting for the Digital Public Library of America. At that invitation-only event, Parker framed the discussion among industry leaders regarding the future of public access to information, from the perspective of public libraries.

It’s an issue highlighted by the decision of two major publishers – Macmillan and Simon & Schuster – not to sell eBooks to public libraries, making more than 25% of the eBook market unavailable to library patrons. More recently, HarperCollins announced restrictions on how libraries can circulate eBooks that it publishes.

Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development, gave a talk on the impact of eBooks at a national summit last fall called “ebooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point” – his presentation can be viewed online. At Monday’s meeting, Parker congratulated him for being named by Library Journal as one of its 2011 Movers & Shakers, in the category of tech leaders.

In another technology-related update, Parker told the board she’s been invited to serve on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s public access technology benchmarks program. That workgroup will be developing benchmarks that libraries can use to determine the kind of technology infrastructure they need to deliver services to their communities.

Parker also briefed the board on new standards imposed by the Library of Michigan, which changed how public libraries qualify for state aid. Those standards – originally proposed as rules – are the subject of a lawsuit against the state library, filed by the Herrick District Library in Holland. The AADL has filed an amicus curiae – or “friend of the court” – brief in support of the Herrick library’s position, which charges that the state library has no authority to set these rules, and is taking away local control from district libraries.

Aside from updates made by Parker, the board dispatched with the rest of its business quickly. No one spoke during the time available for public commentary.

Director’s Report

Josie Parker, AADL director, touched on several topics during her report to the board at Monday’s meeting. The issue that generated the most discussion related to her work with the Digital Public Library of America.

Director’s Report: Digital Public Library of America

At the January 2011 AADL board meeting, Parker had briefed the board on her involvement in the Digital Public Library of America initiative. She’d been invited to be part of a small working group that is helping to launch the project, which is spearheaded by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

That working group met on March 1 in Cambridge, Mass. On Monday, Parker described the experience as the highlight of her professional career. Gathered in one room were people who represented all major industries that have an impact on public libraries, she said, and who’ll determine what direction they might move, in terms of public access. It was a one-time opportunity to tell people they need to pay more attention to what the word “public” means – not what she means by the word, Parker clarified, but what industry leaders intend.

Parker was the first speaker at the session, and her role was to frame the discussion from the perspective of public libraries, as opposed to academic research libraries. She said she explained to the working group how public libraries might participate in the digital distribution of information. Her talk, she said, ended up framing the discussion for the entire day – she noted that there were those who truly appreciated what she had to say, and those who wished she hadn’t shown up. “I did not shame us,” she said, “but they definitely know who we are.”

Parker reported that she sat at a table with the head of OverDrive, a business that provides eBooks and other digital material to public libraries, schools and universities. The executive was very harried that morning, she noted, because the publisher HarperCollins had just announced restrictions on how public libraries can circulate its eBooks. Rather than circulating the eBooks an unlimited number of times, as libraries do for print editions, HarperCollins will allow eBooks to be checked out only 26 times before they expire. Libraries would have to pay again for additional circulation.

At the working group session, they didn’t have enough information about the HarperCollins decision to really understand its implications, Parker said. Though the public library community is up in arms about it, she said, it’s not clear that the move is as bad as it’s been made out to be. Libraries have to recognize that negotiations are necessary – publishers have to make money, she said.

Parker pointed out that at least HarperCollins is still selling eBooks to public libraries. Two major publishing houses – Macmillan and Simon & Schuster – refuse to sell any of its eBooks to public libraries, she noted. That means that more than 25% of the eBook market isn’t available to library patrons. She suspected that executives at Macmillan and Simon & Schuster are happy about the firestorm against HarperCollins, because it draws attention away from the much more serious situation that their decisions pose.

Jan Barney Newman clarified that only eBooks were being limited. That’s true, Parker replied, but the published book is going away. If libraries are going to have material to distribute to their patrons, they need to negotiate for electronic material now, while they still have leverage because of their purchases of traditional books.

Newman asked for more details about the DPLA event. Parker said they operated under the Chatham House Rule, in which statements are recorded but not attributed to any particular speaker. People were allowed to use Twitter (hashtag #DPLA) – but again, statements couldn’t be attributed to a speaker. Later, John Palfrey, the head of the DPLA steering committee, posted some notes on his blog about the meeting.

Parker said it was important for those involved in the DPLA to hear the issue of public access from the public libraries’ perspective, rather than just from academic institutions. “So we’ll see – it’s a long process,” she said.

Prue Rosenthal asked whether authors are generally aware that distribution of their books is being limited in this way. Authors weren’t as aware in the beginning, Parker replied, but now it’s a standard part of their contracts. And some are finding ways to work around those publishers’ decisions. Some blockbuster authors are bypassing publishers altogether, for example. But the vast majority rely on large publishing houses to get their material distributed.

Publishers worry because digital material is so much easier to pass around, Parker said. The feeling is that if someone can get it for free from a library, they wouldn’t pay for it. “It’s early days,” she said, “but my instinct tells me that isn’t so.” She noted that she continues to buy books, even though she works at a library and has easy access to them for free.

Barbara Murphy observed that there seems to be parallels with the music industry. That’s true, Parker said – technology is transforming the publishing industry in ways that are somewhat similar. Within five years, some of the large publishing houses will likely go out of business, because they aren’t paying attention to what’s happening. But the library is paying attention, she added. They’re trying to keep up, so that as the market shifts to eBooks, they’re prepared.

Newman asked what percentage of AADL’s circulated material are eBooks. It’s small, Parker said, because of constraints on how eBooks are available to circulate. The library can’t purchase Kindles for circulation – Amazon’s electronic book reader – because of the way its licensing agreement is structured. Another eBook reader, the Nook, does allow downloads of eBooks that can be circulated, but the library hasn’t bought the hardware to do that yet. Right now, the AADL’s main interface for eBooks is through OverDrive, which Parker said isn’t easy to use. [More details about AADL's available eBook catalog is on the library's website.]

In response to queries from board members, Parker said she’d schedule a demonstration of OverDrive and other eBook options at the board’s April 25 meeting.

Margaret Leary asked whether ebrary, which also sells eBooks to libraries, is an option. Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development, said there’s not much material available from ebrary, and most of it is non-fiction.

Parker noted that they’re confined in what they can offer based on what OverDrive can negotiate with publishers. That business gets pummeled by the library community mainly because they’re the only target, Parker said: “There’s no competition – but that’s going to change.”

Director’s Report: Kudos to Eli Neiburger

Also during her director’s report, Parker highlighted the fact that Eli Neiburger – AADL’s associate director of IT and product development – has been named by Library Journal as one of its 2011 Movers & Shakers, in the category of tech leaders. Neiburger received a round of applause from the board and staff who attended Monday’s meeting.

Parker read from the Library Journal article that profiled Neiburger, quoting Toby Greenwalt, virtual services coordinator at Skokie Public Library, Illinois: “[Neiburger has] thus far exhibited a near-flawless track record at predicting the ways technology and web culture are going to impact the library world. He’s a person we definitely need to lead us into our redefined role.”

Directing her remarks to Neiburger, Parker said, “We do need you to lead us into our redefined role, and we’re just very glad you’re with us to lead us.”

Director’s Report: Update on Lawsuit

During her report, Parker gave an update on new standards imposed by the Library of Michigan. Those standards – originally proposed as rules – are the subject of a lawsuit against the state library, filed by the Herrick District Library in Holland. At their December 2010 meeting, the AADL board had voted to file an amicus curiae – or “friend of the court” – brief in support of the Herrick library’s position. From The Chronicle’s report of that meeting:

In 2009, the Library of Michigan issued new rules which changed the standards used to determine whether public libraries qualify for state aid. The rules were slated to take effect in October 2010 – the start of the state’s fiscal year. [.pdf file of 2010 Library of Michigan Certification Manual and State Aid to Public Libraries Grant Rules]

When the new rules were announced in draft form in 2008, directors of eight library cooperatives in the state – representing, through their memberships, many of the public libraries in Michigan – objected to the change. They contended that the Library of Michigan didn’t have the authority to set new rules on how libraries qualify for state aid, which is awarded by the state legislature. “It was a loud voice, and it went unheard,” Parker said.

In October 2009, the Herrick District Library filed a lawsuit in the Ottawa County Circuit Court, challenging the Library of Michigan’s authority to set these rules. The lawsuit focused on rules requiring that a public library provide the same level of service to all areas it serves.

Libraries have the authority to contract with areas outside of its millage boundaries to provide varying levels of service. A contracting municipality, for example, could receive limited library services for its residents, and pay an amount lower than what’s levied by the library millage within the library district’s boundary. The new rules prohibit this approach – and if a library continued to provide contracted services at a lower level, it would not qualify for state aid.

Herrick’s lawsuit argues that the Library of Michigan and the state’s History, Arts and Library Department – which previously housed the state library but which has since been dissolved – lack statutory authority to set rules for determining how state aid is distributed to public libraries. The suit also argues that neither the state constitution nor the statutes that govern public libraries require that libraries deliver the same level of service to contracting jurisdictions. Finally, the lawsuit contends that because the new rules are vague and overly broad, they are unconstitutional.

Parker told the AADL board that the lawsuit is challenging the new rules for the same reasons that the directors of the eight library cooperatives had objected to them – because the Library of Michigan has no authority to set the rules, and because the state library is taking away local control from district libraries.

On Sept. 9, 2010, Judge Calvin Bosman of the Ottawa County Circuit Court issued a ruling in the case, stating that the Library of Michigan lacked the authority to issue these new rules. The state library appealed the decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and filed a motion for stay – essentially asking that the lower court’s decision not take affect until the appeal is resolved. Parker said they learned earlier in the day that the motion for stay has been denied.

The lawsuit and the recent denial of the motion for stay throws state aid into limbo, Parker said. Libraries haven’t received aid for the state’s current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 – although the money has been budgeted by the legislature. In the short term, it doesn’t affect AADL, Parker said – in general, state aid has been dwindling because of Michigan’s economic situation. Most recently, the legislature budgeted about $6 million in total aid to public libraries statewide.

Because of the state’s overall economy, AADL didn’t anticipate receiving state aid this year, so it won’t affect their current budget, Parker said. Nor does AADL have any contracts to provide services to other municipalities. But longer-term implications could be significant, she said.

On Monday, Parker told the board that earlier this year, the state library took the “rules” that were in dispute and imposed them as “standards.” They are essentially the same set of requirements, and state aid will be distributed to public libraries based on these standards. Parker reported that Herrick filed for an injunction against the state to prevent them from imposing the standards, but that injunction was not awarded by the circuit court. Herrick now plans to appeal the circuit court’s decision not to award an injunction. Meanwhile, the state library will move ahead in awarding state aid based on the new standards.

Parker reiterated to the board what she has previously stated – that these standards will result in public libraries deciding not to contract with municipalities unless those municipalities can pay for the full range of services that the library offers. She told the board that she’d keep them updated as Herrick’s legal action progresses.

Director’s Report: Gates Foundation

Parker told the board that she’s been invited to serve on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s public access technology benchmarks program. The workgroup will be developing benchmarks that libraries can use to determine the kind of technology infrastructure they need to deliver services to their communities.

While the foundation’s early investments bought computers and Internet access for libraries, Parker said they’ve now shifted focus to help libraries evaluate their technology needs, train staff, and determine how to gain public support for long-term community funding.

Director’s Report: Addy Awards

The library received four ADDY awards earlier this year from the Ann Arbor Ad Club, Parker reported – one gold ADDY, and three silvers. The awards recognize work in advertising, marketing and promotion. For the library, the materials that won ADDYs this year were all designed by Heidi Woodward Sheffield of The Exclamation Point. The gold award was for material designed for AADL’s summer reading program. Silver AADYs were awarded for: stickers and puzzles; two issues of Jump! – a calendar of events for kids; and for a Reading to Me CD that’s distributed to families with infants.

Parker said that although the library has consistently received ADDY awards over the years, this is the first time they’ve been awarded so many at this level.

Financial Report

Ken Nieman, associate director of finance, human resources and operations, gave a brief monthly financial report to the board. [.pdf file of March 2011 financial report] The library’s unrestricted cash balance as of Feb. 28, 2011 was $11 million, down from $11.8 million in January. Its positive fund balance totaled $7.9 million.

Two items – software licenses and employee benefits – remain over budget, he said. Expenses for software licenses are expected to come back in line by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The extra expenses for employee benefits – related to increased health care costs – have been discussed at previous meetings. Year to date, that line item is $53,393 over budget.

Nieman also pointed out that the Friends of the AADL, a nonprofit that raises money to support the library, donated just over $40,000 to AADL in February. So far this year, donations from the Friends have totaled roughly $95,000.

Committee Reports

Board president Margaret Leary gave a report on the executive committee meeting, held earlier this month. The group includes Leary, Barbara Murphy and Prue Rosenthal. They discussed prospects for the budget in the coming year, Leary said, including trends and possible solutions to challenges that had been outlined by AADL director Josie Parker. Leary did not elaborate. She said the committee also heard a presentation by local developer Peter Allen – Leary described it as a short seminar on development, given from his perspective. He’ll give the second part of his presentation at the committee’s March 30 meeting, she said.

Responding to a request from board member Nancy Kaplan to talk more about Allen’s presentation, Leary said it seemed like the kind of thing he’d give to his students. [Allen is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. His students gave presentations at a library board meeting in December 2009, based on class projects they'd developed for the city-owned Library Lot, located next to the downtown library on South Fifth Avenue.]

Leary said Allen’s handout, which she offered to distribute to other board members, outlined different stages of real estate development.

Present: Rebecca Head, Nancy Kaplan, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal. Also AADL director Josie Parker.

Absent: Ed Surovell

Next meeting: Monday, April 25, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the library’s fourth floor meeting room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. The board typically meets on the third Monday of each month, but moved the April meeting so that it wouldn’t fall on Passover, which this year is on April 18. [confirm date]


  1. By m.c. zacharias
    March 28, 2011 at 11:53 am | permalink

    Maybe a bit off the subject…..but something I simply don’t understand — and the info presented in this article prompts my query. Data storage has evolved (been compressed) from rooms of books, manuscripts, and file cabinets TO microfilm TO floppy disks TO hard drives TO the internet ‘cloud’. In light of this….#1) why are library footprints growing? and, with this almost unfathomable compression of data….#2) what does the future hold for the ‘bricks and mortar’ library?

  2. By Mary Morgan
    March 29, 2011 at 10:37 am | permalink

    Re. future of the “bricks and mortar” library: This is a topic that’s been discussed at past meetings of the Ann Arbor District Library board and by AADL staff. While book collections are one of the services that libraries provide, their focus is not on books so much as education, especially for preschool and K-12. So activities at the library building – storytime for small children, homework help and tutoring, special events like videogame competitions – would continue in that space. The library also provides computer terminals with Internet access for those who can’t afford it in their homes, as well as venues for lectures and public meetings.

    It’s likely that the footprint of library buildings in the future will be smaller, or certainly configured in a dramatically different way than what we see today, with so much space still devoted to stacks for book collections.