June 18, 2021

Four Questions with Michael Blackwell on Ebook Advocacy

Michael Blackwell is the Director of the St. Mary's County Library in Leonardtown, Maryland and a long time advocate for eresources nationally through his work with Reader's First, a Library Futures coalition partner. Michael first encountered the power of ebooks in 2010 while at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, where he led a system-wide transformation to support digital content with excellence. Since then, Michael has been a major part of ebook advocacy and legislation, including the recent successful bill in Maryland, to support reasonably priced digital resources for public libraries. Michael answered four questions about trends in the landscape, his activism, and how to run a successful legislative campaign in your state.

As the leader of a small to medium sized system, what advantages does your ebook activism bring to your community?

My community benefits from the efforts of many in the library community to expand access to great content in a way that as much as possible is sustainable for libraries, to make getting that content on devices as easy as possible, and to improve platforms to enhance important accessibility features. But acquiring and sustaining digital content can be especially challenging in small- or medium-sized systems, where there may not be as much money, and improving the user experience benefits my and other such reader communities.        

What trends do you see in eresources that you find empowering? What do you find troubling?
The development of multiple license models, which Readers First has been asking for years, is empowering. No one model suits all library needs. [For example,] the DPLA has arranged with 25 other publishers to offer multiple models, and during the pandemic Penguin Random House is also offering multiple license models. The Internet Archive is investigating libraries owning content in EPUB, and circulating content under copyright rather than licensing would be a game-changer. I hope this trend will continue. SimplyE is looking at improving its already industry leading accessibility features, working to help the visually or otherwise challenged better use public libraries.
All is not roses, though. In 2018 and 2019, most of the Big Five Publishers changed their license models, in many cases moving away from perpetual access. A few publishers have lowered prices some during the pandemic, but we have no guarantee that after the pandemic prices won’t rise or publishers won’t backslide. Some publishers will still not license to libraries, and many important older titles are not available or too expensive. The legal challenge to Controlled Digital Lending is also an issue – I don’t think we in libraries can afford to lose this valuable way of sharing content.  If we do, we may have to seek legislative redress—like a library digital right of first sale.      

How did the successful legislative effort in Maryland come to pass?
We proposed it because, in the wake of many publisher license changes that disadvantaged libraries and the continuing withholding of content by some publishers, we hoped we could have legislation that might give libraries some power in a market in which we have no clout other than not licensing, and in which at least some publishers would seem to prefer we not exist. I’m pleased that several states have expressed interest in trying such legislation, and that New York has also passed such legislation. If you want to try, you’ll need good relations with your legislation, a lobbyist to help guide the bills, legislative leaders to introduce and back the bills, a library champion who is knows the issues to provide talking points and create excitement and momentum in the library community, and probably an attorney with copyright expertise to beat back the legal challenges that publisher PACs will inevitably bring.

What advice would you have for other library directors advocating for digital resources in their communities?
First, get informed. Know what is happening—good developments and threats. Follow Alan Inouye or ReadersFirst on Twitter, follow ULC’s posts on the topic, join the ALA CORE Ebooks Interest List. Take part in the conversation there, or at least invite a staff member who is your digital content leader who will get involved.
Become a part of Library Futures, or at least follow this group, which is doing some great advocacy. In all these places, you’ll meet passionately dedicated people who are working with publishers and vendors to enhance the library digital content experience.Get updates from https://ebooksforall.org/. If the ALA or other group starts an advocacy campaign, get behind it and get your library readers behind it.
But perhaps above all, do a great job providing and marketing library services. Our power comes from patrons who love libraries. What we really need is people supporting libraries. And then if we advocate with publishers or even state or federal legislators, we’ll have many voices, not to mention keep the funding that may make digital content sustainable in a time of increasing demand when we still need to provide print and when some publishing trends are making creating a rich digital collection ever more difficult.

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