March 25, 2022

Four Questions with Emily Drabinski and Kelvin Watson

As ALA members cast their votes for their next ALA president, we asked candidates Emily Drabinski and Kelvin Watson to take some time out of their busy schedules to be a part of our Four Questions series to talk digital futures, ebooks, and access. Here are our questions and their replies.

Whether it’s the surging popularity of public library ebooks or the etextbooks that are now common in education, it seems clear that libraries are moving toward increasingly digital assets.  In a world of complex and expensive licensing agreements and increasing media consolidation, how do we ensure that the digital future is accessible and inclusive?

Drabinski: We need as many people working toward an accessible and inclusive digital future in as many ways as possible in as many contexts as possible. One of those arenas of struggle is within our professional association. ALA has strong policy positions and lobbying efforts that need continued support in the fight for E-rate funding, universal broadband, net neutrality, and copyright rules that favor the public domain over profits. We need to expand our organizing capacity, building the skills necessary for library workers everywhere to work collectively on behalf of these goals. 

Watson: In my role as co-chair of the ALA Digital Content Working Group, I am heartened to see Congress taking steps to address the unfair ebook pricing structure that publishers impose on America’s library system. US Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and US Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) are leading this charge and will need ALA’s full support and resources to prevail. The popularity and accessibility of ebooks and etextbooks should be celebrated as opening new opportunities for the widest possible audiences. Instead, consolidation seems to be leading to monopolies within the digital publishing industry, and therefore, less accessibility. This must be urgently addressed.  This can be a powerful moment for the ALA to keep this issue at the forefront. We must ask Congress to require fair pricing standards for libraries in order to provide the public with ease of access, discovery, and delivery.

Libraries rely increasingly on outsourced services, especially for digital content. How do you see that trend affecting our profession and our patrons?

Drabinkski: Libraries and the vendors we contract with are part of the same ecosystem. I don’t think there’s a way to get outside of that without fundamentally transforming our social and economic relations such that public institutions have the capacity to own our own systems on a scale that matches what capital can do. That’s the big goal and I see workplace organizing as essential to the project. How can we organize together to make claims for pieces of the pie large enough that we can run our own shows? We contract out in part because we don’t have internal capacities, and that’s got to be one locus of struggle. As we work in that direction, we should remember that the people who work for digitization companies are also in our profession, and we have the power to choose to work with businesses that pay those workers well, provide benefits, and support professional development. ALA can be an important voice in this discussion--this is why we have vendors as part of the association, not just so they can secure our business, but because we are all working in the same field. As we organize ourselves, we need our colleagues in the vendor sector to do that too 

Watson: Digital content is, indisputably, the future of information consumption. The explosion of digital platforms has given consumers endless choices on how to spend their screen time, and they expect a consistent, quality user experience. 

Given these extremely high expectations for quality and variety, libraries must rely on outsourced services more and more to keep customers engaged and excited about our collections. These platforms fulfill this need for instant access, discovery, and delivery and support library staff in maximizing circulation. The result is a more robust experience for the customer and more freedom for staff to create new, innovative programs, targeted outreach, and one on one service.

By offering a variety of digital content platforms, libraries are able to reach more customers – especially the underserved – with a variety of educational and entertaining content and programs that they want and need. 

Here are a few examples:

  • At the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District (LVCCLD), we launched a partnership with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, which utilizes the OverDrive Libby app to enable bus riders to gain instant access to our digital resources using free on board WiFi on 400 city buses. Many of these riders and their children may have never set foot in a library before, and are discovering our materials and services for the first time.
  • To help give early learners a boost in reading, math, and digital literacy, my team and I used grant funds to purchase more than 1,000 Playaway Launchpad Learning Tablets.  Preloaded with educational apps, videos, storybooks, and games, the tablets are 100% secure, do not require an internet connection, and are free to check out at all branches.
  •  Using federal grant funds, we are also launching a cell phone lending program with T-Mobile for low-income and homeless individuals.
  •  At Broward County Libraries, I obtained over $200,000 in grant funds to provide iPads for children in Kindergarten through 3rd grade from low-income households, enabling remote access to ebooks and participation in the summer reading program.
  •  In Broward County, we also expanded library access to 260,000 students through the Axis 360 Community Share Program, which turned student ID numbers into Digital Direct Library Cards. Library usage soared during the 2018-2019 school year. When the pandemic struck a year later, the program was well positioned to serve students’ remote learning needs, resulting in a 58 percent increase in usage. This spring, my Las Vegas team will be providing 310,000 Las Vegas students in the Clark County School District (CCSD) with this same direct access through the Axis 360 platform.

Maryland, New York, and Illinois have all recently introduced or passed laws requiring publishers who license ebooks to public libraries to do so on “reasonable” terms. Their efforts have been met with resistance ranging from vetos to lawsuits from the publishing industry. As a candidate, how do you see legislation as a solution to the library ebook crisis?

Drabinski: When we think about how we’re going to win long term, the question should be less “is this the correct approach?” and more “what else can we do?” Legislative work is a solution, but not not the only solution. It’s also more effective when there is a mass movement that puts pressure on our lawmakers to side with us. We need to be as organized and effective as profit-driven stakeholders in these fights. Laws change when mass movements are mobilized. As ALA president, my focus will be on providing library workers with tools and support to mobilize their constituents. Association leadership can help us imagine better futures, and that is crucial right now.

Watson: At 50,000 members strong, we must continue to leverage our collective voice to move forward the efforts of Sen. Wyden and Rep Eshoo. We must speak to other lawmakers who care about equity in education and form a coalition around this issue. As a united group of public service institutions, libraries must also ask publishing leaders to join us in creating a model that calls for open accessibility, not just some of the time and not just for some of the people, but for everyone, all of the time, under all conditions, in any market, as a matter of industry practice.

What role do you see for ALA in determining the future of equitable digital access, and what steps would you take as ALA President to make that happen? 

Drabinski: Equitable digital access means everything from implementing open infrastructure for digital collections to open library doors where everyone is welcome. As ALA president, I’ll be leading an association full of smart, dedicated people committed to public knowledge, public information, public institutions, public access, and the public good. The role is in part about shaping narratives, telling better and louder public stories, to ALA members, library and information workers outside the association, and the broader public about the importance of equity and access, the principles that guide the work of the vast majority of us in the field. Organizations like Library Futures and the American Library Association advance legislation, develop programming and professional development, shape narratives, and direct resources in ways that support these values. We need all of us to win, and ALA is a lot of us. 

Watson: I was privileged to work with an esteemed team on the ALA Joint Digital Content Working Group. Our position paper, published in 2020, details this issue and how the pandemic has made free and fair access to digital material even more difficult for library users who need them the most.

If we don’t modify current problematic licensing and delivery models, libraries of all types will struggle to meet an ever-increasing demand for digital materials. While efforts are being met with resistance by many publishers, we must continue to pursue resolution of this unfair practice. If elected, I plan to continue to implement the Joint Digital Content Working Group’s recommendations, which include:

  •  Working with publishers to develop licensing models that are achievable for libraries of all sizes and budgets.
  • Strongly advocate to legislators that those who claim to be supporters of public education must work with us to eliminate this anti-competitive pricing structure in the library digital content market.
  • Revisit with publishers the long-standing practice of preventing libraries from providing access to digital textbooks.
  • Advocate for nationwide investment in public broadband service to allow low-income and rural communities equal access to digital content.

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