Common Stacks Episode 014: Michael Blackwell of ReadersFirst

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Episode 014: Michael Blackwell of ReadersFirst

In this episode we spoke with Michael Blackwell, founder of ReadersFirst, an organization of nearly 300 libraries representing 200 million readers dedicated to ensuring access to free and easy-to-use eBook content.

Links mentioned: 
Library Futures: https://www.libraryfutures.net/

The Palace Project: https://www.thepalaceproject.org

Rough Transcript: Michael Blackwell of ReadersFirst

Heather:

Hello, and welcome to the Common Stacks podcast. This is the show that brings together professionals from within the library world, as well as interesting experts from other professions to engage in discussions around the issues affecting libraries, looking at the ways in which libraries are dispelling the myth of, well, this is how it's always been done. I'm your host, Heather Teysko. This is episode 14 and it is all about ebook lending in public libraries and the advocacy of a group called ReadersFirst with an interview with Michael Blackwell. So I want give a quick disclaimer, which is that I have worked in this area for a long time. And one of the groups that Michael Blackwell talks about in his interview is The Palace Project. And I spent about a year and a half working on that project before I was full time with Library Lever and this podcast. So I just want to make that disclaimer.

For those of you who have not been following eBooks in libraries, it's a big deal. And it has been a big deal. And especially during the pandemic, it became a much bigger deal. And some licensing terms have changed, which we're starting to see the effects of. And he will talk about that. But there are also some hopeful signs too. So we're going to talk about those too. It's not all just doom and gloom. So a quick reminder that this podcast is brought to you by Library Lever, a new kind of mission based buying club that is transforming the way libraries are purchasing can learn more about us at LibraryLever.com, or you can hop into our free community at community.LibraryLever.com to discuss this episode, as well as all of the other things. Lots of other things we talk about in there.

All right, let me introduce you to Michael Blackwell. And then we will get started. 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 ReadersFirst. He 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 the ebook advocacy and legislation, including the recent successful bill in Maryland to support reasonably priced digital resources for public libraries. So we're going to hop right into it with Michael explaining a little bit about what ReadersFirst is and how it got started.

Michael:

Sure. In, in 2010, through 2011, many libraries got interested in offering eBooks, but the reader experience was terrible. I mean, it could take 17 to 20 steps to get a title ready to read. So ReadersFirst began out of New York public who put out a call for other libraries to start using technological measures to improve that reading experience specifically the use of application programming interfaces or APIs, so that vendors and integrated library systems could work together to streamline the download process and ReadersFirst began to get legs. Eventually some 300 libraries over the world have signed on to our basic principles. And the idea is that reading an ebook should be as easy as getting a book in print from your library. You should have the selection, it should be an easy reading experience. Our group continues with doing projects. We write position papers. We do the occasional journal article just to talk about where things are in the library ebook realm. And one can actually still join as a library and just sign on to our principles. Or you can become a member of our working group, which is about 30 librarians from United States and Canada, who are the ones who put these projects together.

Heather:

Awesome. And you mentioned how early on it was technological. And the, I think that at one point it was like 23 steps to download an ebook. It was insane, but things have changed a lot with the Libby app and technologically things seem to have gotten easier, but the other part of it then is the relationship with the publishers. And so how just basically since in the past 10 years, since you've been kind of doing this since 2011 ish, how have things changed? How has the landscape changed?

Michael:

Well, perhaps the biggest change has been in the improvement in the user experience. And I'd like to thank all the library vendors all of whom committed to use APIs to improve. The various apps are now much easier to use, and it's a lot easier to get that content. I'd point to the development of first, simply E and then the palace app, which I call the one apps to rule them all as being an important change. Basically, they allow you to launch content from eight different vendors. So they streamline the experience by putting all library content in one place. Another big and important change has been the growth of access to content. Some 12 years ago, many of what were then the big six wouldn't even allow ebook content to be shared. And now they all do. And the most recent additions are Amazon and audible offering their unique content through the palace marketplace.

Michael:

Previously they never did it and, and now they are. But I I'd have to say that the biggest change might be in how bad the license terms from what are now, the big five have become as of 2018. You cannot get a perpetual access ebook from any of them. They're all under license and they expire. They still offer three of them still offer perpetually in audiobooks and why they do it in audiobook and not in eBooks is a mystery to me. But the cost for short term licenses are many times what they used to be. I'll give you a specific example. Alexander McCall Smiths, the number one ladies detective agency in 2012, you could get a perpetual license for $13. Two years later in 2013, it was $44 in 2018. It stayed $44, but it went from perpetual access to a two year loan period.

Michael:

So let's say you were getting it in 2014 and you paid $44. You'd still have it. And 10 years from now, you'd still have it. Whereas if you try to get it now, it's going to cost you that every two years. And it's going to cost you $275 for the next 10 years. This is simply unsustainable for libraries every two years, the publishers don't get to walk down our shelves and start pulling books off and say, you don't get that anymore. So I'd say that's been the biggest change here recently, and it's making digital content increasingly unsustainable for libraries. Many libraries put APA funds into getting more digital content, but if you're putting it into the big five, when you're seeing that content go away in two years or after 26 circs, I don't know how well you could consider you spent your money. So with rising costs and licenses constantly having been renewed, that's been, unfortunately the, the biggest change we we've seen in library digital access.

Heather:

I remember about 10 years ago when Harper Collins, I think it was, came out with the 26 checkout model and everybody was really upset about that and said, you know, but, but now that seems to be actually one of the better models and, and one of the sort of standards that people are okay with it. It's interesting how that has gotten worse in so many ways.

Michael:

Yeah, it's, it's ironic that there, there was so much concern in library land over the Harper Collins 26 license. But ironically now it's absolutely the best deal we get. And the reason why is the price Harper Collins charges, hardcover price, plus 15% for those 26. Searchs now Harper Collins. If you're listening, if you'd go up to 30 circs and drop it down to a hardcover price, you'd be right where I think many libraries would say, okay, now we're talking, we've got a print equivalent. We could still probably get more search out of a, out of a hard cover than, than 30, but you'd be darn close. And we could just put all this behind us. But the other, the other license terms really big five are substantially worse than that now. Yes.

Heather:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, what, what is, well, I, I'm going to skip ahead here to one of my later questions. What, how do we communicate this to not just the public, but also libraries? It seems like not everybody, like most librarians don't seem to be aware of the urgency of this. When we talk to people, it's like, yeah, we use Libby, Libby Z, it's expensive, but it's what we use like, and the public certainly doesn't really have a, a grasp on library costs and, and how all of this is working. Like how do we communicate this urgency to people that we're dealing with the Mo with the model that is not sustainable? How, how do we get that across <laugh>?

Michael:

Well, I think we're starting to get closer to conveying that sense of urgency. Almost all the publications in library that, you know, deal with libraries have articles about this. And we're also seeing them in, in more mainstream publications, a magazine like wired or newspapers, like the Washington post and New York times are covering this as an issue. But getting the absolute sense of, we're not going to be able to do this. I think we're going to see that happening increasing that couple years as libraries start to see, I don't get to have as much circulation in digital as I used to precisely because of these new terms that are now really starting to take effect in 2018, you know, a lot of licenses that we had then we've lost libraries are having to spend 25%, at least those libraries that are counting. I've seen at least 25% just getting content that we used to have because the public still wants it.

Michael:

So I'd recommend to any librarian get involved, join the eBooks for all campaign from the ALA. We're going to have to expand that it's still too focused on McLin as far as I'm concerned, which is really news from three years ago, the Canadians are doing a great job. They've got a site called econ for libraries that talk specific about the prices and how they're being disadvantaged. One way we're pursuing this obviously is through state legislation, which has a very strong way of bringing it to everyone's attention because of the pushback we see against that. But I, I think as librarians begin to see, wait a minute, my, my digital circulation and far from going up the way it has been, it's going to really, we just can't afford to do anymore over the next couple years. I think that's going to bring it to more librarians attention, at least I certainly hope it's going to.

Heather:

Yeah. Well, you mentioned these statewide legislature bills. Tell me about some of those that we're seeing. We're seeing a, a handful of them starting to take off some positives. Some are having pushed back. Can you tell me a little bit about what's going on with that?

Michael:

Sure. We, we had legislation in eight states this past year Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. And I'd like to extend my, thanks to the library, librarians, associations, and the legislators in those states for bringing this forward and bringing it to the attention ultimately of people at the federal level, they see what's happening in their states, and they're going to become more aware of this five states didn't pass at least not this year, and that's not necessarily bad. For example, in Rhode Island, we saw a split between the Senate and a house. They couldn't necessarily agree on the best way a bill might look. And the people in the house, many of whom are lawyers wanted a slight change. So they couldn't agree on it this year, but there's an incredible amount of enthusiasm in the state to pass the bill.

Michael:

So we're confident that it will come back next year and it's going to pass into law then in two states, the, the bill did pass out of the legislature and go to the governor in Maryland. It did make it through and become a law in New York. The governor veto did. And I understand why she was subjected to an incredibly powerful lobbying effort and it wasn't just the publishers. It was anybody who's involved with making money through digital means. So advertisers, the music industry, the movie industry, the television industry, all came out to say, oh, you can't do this. Please don't do this. You're going to destroy the economy of New York. And of course that's absolutely not true. Really what they're after is what I'm going to call the licensing economy, where you don't own anything. If you think about it as a consumer, you might sort, you think buy a movie from Amazon prime or Netflix, or, you know, apple, and you think you own it.

Michael:

But if you leave one of those platforms and stop paying your subscription fees, guess what? You don't have access anymore. They're constantly making more and more money through this licensing economy where consumers and libraries don't own. And so that's where these bills are coming in. What they're trying to do really, it's not that libraries are saying we have to own the materials in these bills far from it. What we're saying is we need fair licensing terms so that we can keep digital books sustainable. I'd say that if you look at a group called library futures online, they've now got draft language for bills and a position statement. And I hope other states are going to get involved with this. The Maryland law was held up in court. It was, you know, there was an injunction against it. Basically the judge decided that it was preempted by copyright.

Michael:

That's not entirely bad. I mean, obviously I wish it hadn't been, and there was another way you could have looked at that legally. And the ALA has released a position statement, arguing why the bill, in fact why the law should have been considered to stand. But other states are learning from the Maryland experience and they're tweaking their bills to have different terms so that they're no longer going to be challenged in the same way that Maryland was. And that brings me to Massachusetts. Massachusetts has basically got a bill in place that says that libraries are consumers and consumers have to be offered fair prices in Massachusetts. So if publishers who are not offering fair terms, don't come forward and offer fair terms to all the publicly funded libraries in Massachusetts schools, academic public then the libraries are not allowed to enter into those contracts.

Michael:

Now, there is a risk involved with this. The publishers could just say fine, we're not going to license in Massachusetts at all. Now I think that would be an incredibly public relations black eye for them, but it's not out of the question that they'll do. So that's why it's so important to get the word out to the public and not just in Massachusetts, but really across the country. Let's say that the bill does pass into law and Massachusetts libraries say, well, the publishers haven't negotiated. These terms are still unfair. We're not going to be able to, to license. Some of the publishers say fine. We don't care. I think it's going to be time for other libraries to go into full on outrage mode, support, Massachusetts, get the word out to their readers. Why can't I get this ebook from you right now? Because it is so ruinously expensive for us in the library to offer that as terms that it's not sustainable for us, ultimately, what we would hope then would be if libraries across the country are supporting Massachusetts in that way that we might see some change at a federal level.

Michael:

Basically the balance between co that copyright is supposed to set is out of whack right now it's supposed to depict right holders. Absolutely. But also serve the public interest for knowledge and it's right now, the way it's set up in digital, at least libraries don't enjoy the same privileges that they do with print under copy, right? The balance is tilted too far away from the public wheel. We need change at the federal level. That's ultimately going to resolve this issue. And until we see that, I'm not sure that we'll we'll actually see any meaningful change for libraries.

Heather:

Hey, are you enjoying this conversation? Do you have comments? Thoughts you'd like to add, hop over into our community community dot library, lever.com, share your thoughts, share your ideas. You can also leave us a voicemail, which is super cool. And we might put it on the podcast. The website to leave us a voicemail is library lever.com/voicemail. Leave us a voicemail. And we pick random people sometimes to send cool swag to so library, lever.com/voicemail, or just hop into our community community dot library, lever.com. All right, let's get back to it.

Heather:

That also, I wanted to ask you how, how does this relate to the internet archive the suit with the publishers with controlled digital lending? How is this related and how

Michael:

I wouldn't say that it's specifically related, let's call it a parallel effort. Controlled digital lending is a powerful effort by libraries to find ways to share content sustainably. The idea behind control digital lending is that especially at since many works have never been digitized and never will be because there's no profit in doing so. The library takes a print copy of a book. It owns that it has paid for the author has been paid. The publisher has been paid. It's legitimately owned. They digitize it. They put the print copy into storage so that it doesn't circulate. And then you circulate the digital copy one user at a time with protection, prevent copying as if it were print under fair use

Heather:

Mm-Hmm

Michael:

<Affirmative> so ill is a natural for controlled digital lending. And it certainly supports preservation, neither of which current licensing terms allow. So what's the internet archive has done is it taken several million works and it's made very poor quality scans. These are not typical library eBooks in something like EUB quality. They often even have marginal notes written in them. They're they're terrible, frankly, to read on a phone. They're not a threat to commercial sales and no library that I know of is using control digital lending to supplant normal library licensing. We could spend all our time here on the internet archive suit, but basically librarians say that control digital lending CDL is fair use that the authors and publishers have been compensated and sharing digitally its just part of our regular circulation mission. The publishers claim that the poor quality scans prevent sales from them and so are causing harm.

Michael:

I'm not sure how they're going to prove that. I, I know they're not costing library sales, frankly. I doubt that anybody says, now I've read that book. If they're really interested in reading it in any case, it's a really short term loan anyway. But there have been a lot of briefs presented on both sides. We'll have to see how the court rules on that one for now a N a group has formed to develop best practices for control digital lending, the case for it being legal for preservation and for inner library loan, to me seems unas Salem, all mm-hmm <affirmative> I encourage libraries to Ken to explore CDL the Boston library, consortiums doing some great work with it as there many other academic and public libraries. Keep it up.

Heather:

Yeah. it's such a shame. There's this tension between publishers and libraries they really should be working through. It's just a, it's just a shame that it's come to this. 

Michael:

Yeah, gotta agree with that.

Heather:

Yeah. Yeah. so what to, to, to turn to a positive note, what have been some successes that ReadersFirst have seen, or that libraries have seen over the past decade?

Michael:

Well, I'd say for ReadersFirst, the, the biggest success story has been the greater ease with which eBooks can now be read from libraries. In 2012 we started putting together our reader's first guide to library ebook vendors. And we reached out to all the major providers and said, here's a reader's first sort of matrix, where do you comply with this? And it was all about using APIs to make things easier. And what we found to our great delight was that most of these major ebook providers started making changes almost right away. They almost got into contest to see who could yeah. Best realize ReadersFirst principles. And so, you know, yeah, you, you look at the overdrive app and, and the changes that went through the new li the newer libi app cloud library access 360 all of them improved by adopting APIs.

Michael:

And so I'd say that that's probably ReadersFirst's biggest success was just seeing that happen. The vendors had a stake in making it easier. They worked to do that and, and the result is much easier reading. I would say that ReadersFirst has continued its work though. And I think we've brought a lot of attention to this whole issue right now. If you go to our site ReadersFirst.org, and look at the top, you can see our position, a, a dropdown menu for our position paper that sets out in detail, why this is a problem right now, what the specific terms are, what libraries want. And I need to thank Carmi Parker from Watcom library system for her great work, developing that also our publisher's price watch, which Carme helped develop it, just list what the cost for eBooks and audiobooks are under perpetual licenses for those are offered and the more frequent metered licenses and how they compare to print prices. What you'll see there is that there are some publishers who are offering square deals, they're offering good terms to libraries. We say that those are ReadersFirst approved, and you're going to see a lot of other libraries, especially I'm sorry, publishers, especially among the big five who are charging many, many times for digital what we can get in print

Heather:

Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. So what that, yeah. That's I was going to ask you, how can people find out more, so ReadersFirst.org and you have all of the papers there. What, what makes you hopeful?

Michael:

Well, I'd say the number one things that makes me hopeful. First of all, that, that there are some publishers out there who are offering fair terms. And I want to say thanks to them. That's encouraging a few small publishers have actually started selling EPU books to libraries and the internet archives been involved with those negotiations. Thanks to publishers who are willing to take a chance and just see what's it going to be like to have libraries have eBooks the same as they've got their print books. That's an encouraging thing. I'd say the main thing that's giving me hope right now is the great support that we are finding in libraries for our stand on this whole issue. When bills have come forward for vote and many more are going to come forward, other states are going to be an acting legislation learning from other states as we move along in Maryland, the vote was unanimous and we're going to bring another bill back.

Michael:

And I hope that one will be unanimous too. In New York, only one legislator out of hundreds voted no that's encouraging when they see the evidence legislators get it. So do members of the public when they become aware of what's going on, they understand libraries position on this and that we're not being given fair terms. This is going to be a long, hard battle against an entrench corporate influence. They they've got billions of dollars behind them, but I think ultimately we can get better deals. All we're really asking for is fairness, give us print equivalent prices in digital negotiate with us. If negotiations fair negotiations would occur, we wouldn't have to pursue leg legislative remedies, but until negotiations do occur, we're going to have to, and I think it's more and more legislations here. This within elect, pass them into law. We're going to see increased pressure at the federal level to sort out this whole thing. We owe it to our readers and to the states and localities to fund us, to seek better terms, to expand reading and support an informed populist to do what libraries do for hundreds of years in print, what we now could do in digital.

Heather:

Yeah. That's awesome. That's, that's awesome. What an inspirational way to, to you. You've got me all. I feel like there should be some soaring music now and <laugh> so is there, is there anything that I've missed that you wanted to add in?

Michael:

No, you know, I, I think that really does it and ending that way, I think is going to be a good way to end it. You know, I think I've had my say I've, I've invited negotiations. I've thanked the publishers who did give us fair prices. I think I've indicated that this is a crisis for libraries. I don't know what else to say. <Laugh>

Heather:

That's, that's it. That's it. You've done it all. Thank you, Mike, Michael Blackwell for taking the time to talk to me today.

Michael:

Well, well thank you so much for the opportunity to present this issue. Talking to people like you is just another important way that we're going to be able to get the word out. And I hope that libraries and members of the public who support libraries are going to get more involved and begin to advocate with us for change.

Heather:

Thanks again to Michael Blackwell for taking the time out of his busy schedule, to chat about eBooks and really give us all of that background and information about ebook lending in public libraries and how you can get involved and really move this issue forward with patrons and with other staff and go to ReadersFirst.org, to learn more, to see all the position papers, read up on it, all of that good stuff. And of course, hop into our community, https://community.LibraryLever.com to chat more with colleagues and carry on the conversation. Thanks so much for listening. We'll be back again soon. Bye-Bye.

About the author 

Heather Teysko

Heather Teysko is head of community and engagement for Library Lever, and she loves running the Common Stacks Podcast. She's been in Library Land for close to 20 years, with a career that has focused on technology and ebooks. She is also passionate about history, having built a website on Colonial American history in 1998 that got to #1 on Yahoo (when that was a thing) has been podcasting on Tudor England since 2009, and her podcast The Renaissance English History Podcast has a social following of over 50,000 people. She has published several books including Sideways and Backwards: a Novel of Time Travel and Self Discovery, which was negatively compared to Outlander in several Amazon reviews, despite the fact that it is set in a completely different time period, but the comparison still feels like an honor.
You can follow her on twitter @teysko.

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