This month, I begin my second year working with the Oregon Humanities Council facilitating public conversations about the cultural impact of e-books and the many implications of e-reading. One worrisome facet of e-reading is that of reader vulnerability, i.e., the unchecked power of digital content providers to control or restrict the availability of a text at the push of a button; to block or wholly disable reader access; to censor or otherwise manipulate content at will; and to infringe upon reader privacy in any number of ways.
In the world of print books, it's long been a role of the public library to mitigate reader vulnerability. When it comes to e-reading, too, librarians are working daily at all levels to provide and protect reader access and defend reader rights and privacy. They face unprecedented challenges, however.
Last weekend at the Central Library here in Portland, I attended an outstanding panel presentation on the subject of library access to e-books. Publisher/library relations on this matter have become increasingly heated in the last few weeks, as ALA president Maureen Sullivan's recent open letter to American publishers revealed.
The Central Library panel was a wealth of up-to-the-minute information about the challenges libraries continue to face in a current publishing climate where restricted access is the default. The panel featured Molly Raphael (immediate past president of the ALA), present Multnomah County library director Vailey Oehlke, and librarian and digital access expert Greg Williams. Each spoke at length and with great first-hand knowledge and insight into a troubling state of affairs.
The panel is now available as a podcast on the Multnomah County Library website. It will interest and enlighten anybody concerned about the continuing role of our beloved public libraries in the increasingly centralized "information economy" of a so-called digital age.