The Top 10 Library Stories of 2018

1. The Trump Administration Renews Its Call to Eliminate Federal Library Funding

Another year of the Trump administration came with yet another call to permanently eliminate all federal library funding. But once again, thanks to some committed grassroots advocacy work, librarians and library supporters are poised to see a boost, not a cut, to next year’s federal library funding.

In justifying the proposed cuts in its fiscal-year 2019 budget proposal, which was released in February, the Trump administration again asserted that funding libraries is not a “core” federal responsibility. And for a second year in a row, the administration proposed to permanently eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), as well as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In response, ALA president Jim Neal blasted the proposal as “out of touch with the real needs of Americans” and vowed that library supporters would make their voices heard on Capitol Hill.

So far, so good. As of this writing, lawmakers have recommended full funding, or in some cases increased funding levels, for many programs, including a $2 million bump for the IMLS; level funding for the Library Services and Technology Act; and level funding for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program. In a separate “minibus” passed in September, the Library of Congress was tabbed for a $26 million increase.

But ALA officials are urging library supporters to stay engaged with their local lawmakers. As of this writing, a final 2019 budget has not yet been passed and anything can happen. Concerns also remain for the long term. In the wake of Trump’s massive corporate tax cut, the 2019 deficit is poised to exceed $1 trillion, owing in part to a revenue shortfalls. The ALA also fully expects the Trump administration to continue to seek the elimination of library funding in future budget proposals.

2. Macmillan Embargoes New Tor E-book Titles in Libraries

After years of relative stability, the library e-book market was jolted in 2018 after Macmillan officials announced a four-month embargo on licensing new e-book titles to libraries from its science fiction imprint, Tor. The news, which came without any advance warning, stunned librarians.

In a brief statement, delivered through its vendors, Macmillan characterized the embargo as a test and said its data suggested that library e-book lending was having a “direct and adverse” impact on Tor’s retail e-book sales. Librarians and vendors quickly disputed that assessment with data of their own and criticized Macmillan for a notable lack of communication. In fact, just days before Macmillan announced the embargo there was a major summit around e-books and digital content held at the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. Macmillan reps were invited but did not attend.

Further heightening tensions in the library e-book market, Penguin Random House announced in September that it was changing its terms of sale from “perpetual access” to one-year licenses. Over the years, PRH’s perpetual access model (under which libraries paid a higher price for e-book titles that never expired) had garnered mixed reviews from librarians. Librarians liked the option of buying one or two perpetual access copies for their collections but also wanted the option of lower-priced “metered” access licenses to better meet periods of peak demand. (After all, who needs 50 expensive digital editions of Fifty Shades of Grey forever?) In the end, public libraries got only the metered option from PRH. But in what counts as a silver lining, PRH reiterated its commitment to the library e-book market.

After meeting with publishers in early December, ALA’ officials reported that while publishers “articulated the unquestioned value of libraries in the reading and publishing ecosystem,” some publishers “seem to have definite ideas for changes in their e-book lending models in the relatively near future.” And with more and more original content coming from Amazon, especially in the audio realm, content which is not available to libraries, complications abound.

After years of calm, could the library e-book market grow contentious again in 2019? And if so, why?

There are many reasons, observers say, but key among them could be the fact that, as one librarian told PW, in the quiet years after libraries were afforded basic access to e-books from all the major publishers, they “took their foot off the gas.” Notably, the ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG) disbanded in 2017, following the expiration of its six-year charter, and it has not yet been adequately replaced. Formed in 2011, when many publishers did not allow libraries to license e-books at all, the DCWG was credited by many with helping to break the e-book impasse, and it was lauded by librarians and publishers alike for opening a critical communication channel between library leaders and publishing executives.

In 2019, librarians will need to come up with a new and effective way to reengage with publishers. The Digital Public Library of America has been active on that front. And vendor OverDrive has also sponsored a new initiative, the Panorama Project, which is designed to collect data about the impact libraries have on publishers’ sales and marketing.

But those efforts may not be nearly enough to make a difference, librarians worry, as some publishers seem to be falling back on their oldest, deepest fears about the library e-book market. Anyone remember “friction”?

3. Sherman Alexie ‘Declines’ the Carnegie Medal

Since its debut in 2012, the ALA’s Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction have become coveted, highly respected literary honors. But this year, Sherman Alexie, winner of the 2018 nonfiction medal for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir declined the award amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Alexie was announced as the winner of the nonfiction medal at the 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Denver on February 11. But just weeks earlier, troubling accusations against him had begun to surface in anonymous comments posted to an article on the School Library Journal website. In a February 13 statement to PW, the ALA said that the Carnegie selection committee had been unaware of any allegations against Alexie and that they would look into the matter. Days later, as more details emerged, Alexie offered a vague apology for his behavior. And on March 11, ALA announced that Alexie, via his agent, had declined the Carnegie Medal.

No question, Alexie’s decision took some pressure off the ALA, which no longer had to worry about inviting (or disinviting) the author to the awards reception at the ALA Annual Conference that summer. In a brief statement, ALA said it accepted Alexie’s decision to decline the honor and would simply not award a nonfiction medal in 2018. But did ALA jump a little too eagerly at the chance to wash its hands of Alexie?

As of this writing, the Carnegie Medal website shows no nonfiction winner for 2018. But the fact remains: Alexie won. A press release announcing him as the winner lives on in the ALA archive; ALA never officially rescinded its selection. And for future generations, there isn’t even a note on the Carnegie Medal site as to why there is no 2018 nonfiction winner, which seems unfair to the great nonfiction writers who were shortlisted, and blind to the powerful cultural movement we’re currently living through.

A quick glance of this year’s top 10 stories will show that ALA is no stranger to controversy, or to making tough decisions. And I supposed one can understand the impulse to duck a punch once in a while. But in this case, it feels like ALA is also ducking an important conversation in the #MeToo era: just how should we handle the works of great writers and artists accused of terrible behavior? No doubt that’s a fraught conversation. But really, who better to lead that conversation than the library community?

4. Forbes Editorial Suggests Amazon Should Replace Libraries; Library Supporters Clap Back Hard

In July, Forbes published a rather ill-conceived contributed editorial by Long Island University economist Panos Mourdoukoutas titled, “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” The piece generated more than 200,000 views in a matter of hours, as well as a flurry of responses from library supporters. And then it was gone—Forbes retracted the piece, claiming it was “outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise.”

In the now infamous, retracted editorial, Mourdoukoutas argued that library services have effectively been replaced by services from Amazon, Netflix, and Starbucks. “At the core,” he posited, Amazon has provided “something better than a local library without the tax fees.” For days, even weeks after it appeared, the piece continued to generate stirring defenses of libraries in editorial pages across the country, as well as tens of thousands of posts on social media.

But should the piece have been retracted? Was Mourdoukoutas really that far out of his lane, as Forbes claimed, or was it just a PR disaster for Forbes? Despite the criticism in the editorial, any good librarian would surely argue against its retraction. As the discussion raged over the editorial, it was jarring that the original was no longer viewable on the Forbes site.

More importantly, whether the editorial was half-baked or not, Mourdoukoutas was not out of his lane. He’s an economist, after all, and the editorial was arguably rooted in economics and tax policy. Further, as EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka pointed out in his response, Mourdoukoutas is hardly alone in his thinking. “Not enough civic and business leaders understand yet that libraries are economic engines, retail anchors, and small business accelerators,” Chrastka told PW, adding that library supporters would do well to be reminded that such beliefs persist.

Looking back, Mourdoukoutas did library supporters a solid; his piece served as a stark reminder of the advocacy work libraries must continue to do. And it also shined a light on the broad support libraries enjoy. For a few days in July, the internet was buzzing about the importance of libraries. And it was beautiful.

5. ALA Division Removes Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Name from Children’s Book Award

In a move that garnered significant media attention, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, voted at the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans to remove the name of children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder from a popular award. The decision came months after a task force set out to consider the long-running scholarly discussion around “anti-Native and anti-black sentiments” in Wilder’s work. And predictably, the change touched off a chorus of critics who portrayed the move as political correctness run amok.

“Stripping Wilder’s name from this award,” Dedra McDonald Birzer wrote in the National Review, “creates a slippery slope for excising all literature that doesn’t adhere to a strict definition of ‘inclusivity,’ whether or not that inclusivity accurately reflects American history.”
Even William Shatner weighed in, getting into a Twitter beef with librarians over the change. Yes, Captain Kirk himself.

But beyond the culture war headlines it generated, the name change made a lot of sense. As the task force pointed out in its report, keeping the award named for Wilder effectively tethered the award to a discussion about Wilder’s “complex legacy” involving race and inclusion. And though that’s obviously an important discussion, the ALA said, the award’s intent is broader—to “honor great, lasting contributions to children’s literature.”

The award will now be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. In a statement, ALA president Jim Neal put the change in context: “This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. We are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.”

6. ALA Executive Director Search Delayed by Debate over the MLIS Degree

Should the next executive director of the ALA be required to have a library degree? That question sparked a contentious debate and an association-wide referendum this past spring—and it ultimately delayed the hiring of the next ALA executive director until 2020.

This surprisingly touchy issue actually goes back to 2017, when the ALA’s executive search committee failed to turn up a suitable candidate to replace Keith Michael Fiels, who retired that July after some 15 years at the helm. In an effort to widen the candidate pool, the ALA Council voted to make the master of library and information science (MLIS) degree “preferred” rather than “required.”

But that move, which was easily adopted by the ALA Council, fired up a faction of ALA members, who launched a successful petition to put the degree requirement question before the entire ALA membership via a referendum on the ALA annual ballot. “To abandon the MLIS as a requirement, or to dilute it by calling it only preferred, not required, is to devalue it,” argued Library Journal columnist John Berry.

In April, ALA announced the referendum results: some 63% had voted to keep the position MLIS required. But under ALA rules, a quarter of the ALA’s roughly 53,000 members must vote for the referendum to count. Just 10,405 members bothered to vote—only about 21% of eligible voters. The measure failed.

Looking ahead, the issue still seems to be simmering among some ALA members. But the good news is that the ALA executive board can now proceed with a wider search for its next executive director.

In the meantime, ALA veteran Mary Ghikas, who took over for Fiels as executive director on an interim basis, has agreed to delay her own retirement and continue to serve as executive director through January 2020. And Ghikas has provided a much-needed measure of stability for ALA. Nevertheless, librarians appear eager to bring on a new leader ready to execute a critical long-term strategy that will usher ALA into a new era—whether or not that leader has a library degree.

“It strikes me as pretty hypocritical that librarians have for decades been impersonating Rodney Dangerfield, complaining that our profession gets no respect, yet we can’t acknowledge that association managers have their own specialized skills,” observed PW library contributor Brian Kenney, director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, in a March PW column. “In such extraordinary times, with so many challenges facing libraries and librarians, our professional association needs the best candidate out there, period, to lead us. Not the best candidate who also happens to have an MLIS degree.”

7. Can “Hate Groups” Use the Library Meeting Rooms?

In yet another national headline to come out of this year’s ALA Annual Conference, the ALA Council faced a backlash for adopting new policy language that seemed to protect the rights of “hate groups” to use public library meeting rooms. And just weeks later, after a chorus of criticism from ALA members, the ALA Council rescinded the new policy language.

Specifically, the change adopted by the ALA Council was a “Library Bill of Rights” interpretation designed to “strengthen” the 1991 provision on library meeting rooms. “If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms,” the new interpretation stated, “then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities.”

In a statement, James LaRue, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, explained that the change did not “establish any new right to conduct hate speech in libraries” but merely reflected “the current legal climate libraries face” when providing the public with meeting spaces. “Publicly funded libraries are bound by the First Amendment,” LaRue noted. “Our goal is not only to protect free speech, but also to keep libraries out of court.”

It sounds reasonable, but ALA members, however, simply weren’t having it. In a Twitter thread, Baltimore County librarian Tyler Vachon neatly explained the opposition: “We are way past the point of there being room to discuss things in the abstract like ‘gosh, should the Klan be able to use our meeting space?’ ” He urged librarians not to allow the “toxic worship of neutrality and inertia to enable fascism in your community.”

On August 16, the ALA announced that the ALA Council had voted to rescind the 2018 meeting room update, by a 140–4 margin. So much for inertia.

8. The Georgia State E-reserves Case Is Remanded on Appeal, Again

The long-running Georgia State University (GSU) e-reserves lawsuit appears to be headed back to the district court, where, barring a settlement, district court judge Orinda Evans will get a third crack at writing an opinion that can pass judicial review. In a surprisingly brief 25-page decision handed down in October, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for a second time gave Evans instructions on how to rebalance her four-factor fair use test.

First filed in April of 2008 by three academic publishers (supported by the Association of American Publishers and the Copyright Clearance Center) the suit alleges that GSU administrators, including the university librarian, systematically encourage faculty to offer unlicensed digital copies of course readings (known as e-reserves) to students as no-cost alternatives to traditionally licensed coursepacks. But a decade later, after two verdicts in favor of GSU and two reversals on appeal, the case could still be a long way from a resolution. And though it was a closely watched case for libraries and publishers back when it was filed, the case now seems to have lost any sense of urgency or importance.

“The saddest thing about this case is that, after ten years, it continues to chew over issues that seem less and less relevant,” observed Kevin Smith, dean of libraries at the University of Kansas, in a blog post. “Library practices have evolved during that time, and publishing models have changed. Open access and the movement toward OERs have had a profound impact on the way course materials are provided to students. So the impact of this case, and of any final decision, if one ever comes, will be negligible.”

9. In Europe, Controversial Plan S Looks to Accelerate the Open Access Movement

The open access got movement got a potentially major boost in September, when the European Research Council announced an ambitious initiative dubbed Plan S. The goal of the plan is that, by 2020, scientists and researchers be required to make their grant-funded research papers freely available to the public upon publication.

Already, as of this writing, 16 major research funders have signed on, with more expected to join. And, as expected, the lucrative journal publishing industry in Europe and the U.S. is now fighting back.

“It is the strong view of the U.S. publishing industry that Plan S is ill-conceived and unsustainable,” said Maria Pallante, president and CEO of Association of American Publishers, in a statement, adding that Plan S “disrespects” the publishing industry and is a “violation of academic freedom to publish” and a “disservice to all who rely upon credible research literature.”

Meanwhile, thousands of researchers and scientists this fall have been signing on to two competing open letters. One is critical of Plan S, suggesting that the initiative is simply too risky and “creates a range of unworkable and undesirable situations.” The second letter says that Plan S is needed to push the open access movement forward: “For too long we have tolerated a pay-for-access business model for scholarly journals that is inequitable, impedes progress in our fields, and denies the public the full benefit of our work.”

Plan S comes amid an apparent uptick in the number of tense negotiations between journal publishers and research institutions worldwide, as well as legal actions by publishers in an effort to stop sites such as SciHub that have taken to offering a more radical open access solution: piracy. And though Plan S supporters readily acknowledge that the initiative is ambitious, they say such an aggressive move is exactly what the open access movement needs to break through.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But the plan certainly represents a critical new phase in the open access movement. “Europe has made a political commitment to open access,” reads a statement on the European Commission website. “Now is the time for us to act collectively to make this a reality.”

10. Michelle Obama

Over the years, ALA has shown a real knack for featuring some incredible, and timely, speakers at its conferences. And no speaker in recent memory has generated more excitement than the opening keynote speaker at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans: former first lady Michella Obama.

Months ahead of the release of her highly anticipated memoir, Becoming, the ALA hosted Obama’s first talk about her new book, in conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who befriended the Obamas when she was a children’s librarian in Chicago in the 1990s. Librarians began lining up early in the morning to get good places in the auditorium.

As for Obama’s talk, it was good. There was nary a hint of politics from the stage, despite the fact that the Trump administration was under intense fire at that very moment for separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. And since the book was not yet out, there was little detail about what was in it. But what was clear was that Penguin Random House was going to have a very big bestseller on its hands. And indeed, only two weeks after it went on sale in November, Becoming became the bestselling book of 2018.

But what makes Obama’s talk stand out is that it happened at all. PRH clearly had options for booking Obama’s first book-related talk, including doing so at, say, BookExpo in New York. But the publishers chose ALA. For all the tension that sometimes exists between libraries and publishers, that choice says something about the common mission, and the common fate, of libraries and publishers. Oh, and Barack Obama’s book is coming soon… hint, hint.

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