Concurrent Leadership and Advocacy in the School Library

I’ve been reading about leadership and advocacy this week and I got to thinking about how these things in successful school library programs really are concurrent activities. As you behave as a leader in your school library, you become an ambassador for the school community and even the wider local community (or state). When people see enthusiastic programming and a positive welcoming environment, they are more likely to value the work that you do and less likely to offer your position up to the chopping block when budget cuts come around.

For example, I have a colleague who announced that she would be leaving the district at the end of the school year. She has been sharing ideas and resources with the entire district (through the mass email list) all year long. She hasn’t said as much, but I suspect her very visible efforts are a conscious way of demonstrating her and her program’s worth to the district. If the administration values her role, perhaps they won’t decide to have us go down a librarian due to attrition. Nothing is certain, but this kind of program advocacy doesn’t hurt—and the approach is to simply do exemplary work as an instructional leader.

In fact, my principal told me himself that [an instructional leader] was what he needed me to be in his school. I had been cautious in my interactions with staff as the new kid on the block, not wanting to step on toes or make a bad impression, and I told him that I didn’t want to tell anyone how to do their job (at least not while I’m still new). He encouraged me to push the staff to think critically and be someone who sees the big picture. If you are working hard side-by-side with other teachers, the respect and even loyalty is sure to follow.

I’ve actually had the opportunity to see my predecessor in action a few times at conferences. She’s a very dynamic person and dives right into the action. I understand a little better now the kind of leadership that she brings to the table, and to which my principal was alluding. She and I are very different in quite a few ways and I worried a lot at first that I was a disappointment to the staff as her replacement. It’s not that I am not just as dynamic or haven’t already had success in my new role. Some of my hesitation though is due to the humility I have toward the profession—I am not a seasoned veteran in the library and don’t even have my full license yet. It’s hard to proceed with confidence and, yes, leadership when you’re not sure if you’re even “doing it right”!

I have given myself permission to feel out the situation and scramble around in survival mode for now, but it can’t last for too long. Unfortunately, the attitude around the state is that school librarians are optional. A librarian friend of mine works in a district similar to mine that had someone leave and instead of rehiring a librarian, they reassigned a non-librarian teacher to be a tech integrator to fill the role (and my friend has to cover the missing duties). I met some librarians from Milwaukee Public Schools a few months ago—they have something like 12 librarians now for the entire district, covering something like 165 schools. They said that they basically go from school to school and select books. There are similar situations in Sheboygan and Menasha.

This isn’t just happening in Wisconsin—I read a newspaper article earlier this year about Philadelphia Public Schools going from 176 certified librarians in 1990 down to 11. One of the principals there fought back to restore the librarian position at the school saying, “The library was the center of the school program. I just don’t see a library as an extra,” which is amazing—but the advocacy and leadership necessary to preserve school libraries has to also come from the front lines, i.e. the librarians who convince the leaders, community and decision-makers that school libraries are, indeed, not extras.

The New Job

I’ve refrained from saying a lot, but the news is out. About three weeks ago, I resigned as a high school/middle school ESL teacher. About two weeks ago, I started as the high school library media specialist in a new district. Many have shared their congratulations, which is sweet, but congratulations have been hard for me to accept. While I ultimately have been looking forward to making this change eventually, I ethically have a problem with breaking a contract (that’s why it’s a contract, you know–because you make a commitment), but the circumstances were such that I did it anyway.

As I considered the possibility, I ultimately landed on a dating analogy about how sometimes you spend too much time with someone who is good enough, but ultimately you know it’s probably not what you want for yourself.

For the record, the political climate here in Wisconsin in regards to public education has made this an even more difficult–and expensive–feat. For example, the fine was five percent of my salary. Do the math in your own life; who has that kind of money to throw around? Not me. The adage that “if you don’t like it, find something else to do” is a pretty tall order. But trapped animal that I was in this situation, I chose my happiness. That is all I will say.

It has been wild trying to properly wrap up one job that I was deeply invested in and learn a new one at the same time. The position was empty for the first week of school (and the teacher prep-time the week before), so there was also a bit of catch up to do. It is also very peculiar to go into a job not as an expert, but as a rookie again. This is my first real experience in a school library. (So far, I am so thankful for everything I’ve learned working with children’s literature at the CCBC! What a life-changer!)

So the new job… well, I find myself looking forward to going to work on Monday morning. (By Thursday and Friday morning, I feel exhausted as usual when I get up, but at least it’s not dread!) I was starting to forget that feeling! The school is a one-to-one school, actually the district grades 4-12 is one-to-one–this means that every student has their own school-issued Chromebook. (They lease every three years. Outside of that, I don’t know how they pay.) Every teacher has a MacBook Air and they teach on an A-B block (four periods that meet every other day). Also there is a homeroom/flex period for enrichment/support/remediation that teachers personally schedule the kids in. Every staff member–including the principal, counselor, librarian, etc. participates in the scheduling and teaching of the flex period.

A large part of my responsibilities now is to manage the flow of broken and repaired Chromebooks and our loaners. Lots of cracked screens and charger port problems (this is year 3 of the lease). A big perk I’m noticing about all the kids having a uniform device like a Chromebook is that we can pass along a lot of our messages to students through email or chat–thus eliminating the constant overhead announcements like “Will so-and-so please report to the attendance office? So-and-so to the attendance office” that kill your ears all day long. It is just so much calmer without that. Also, it is sooooooo cool to look around at students productively working on their devices–not just Facebook and YouTube.

My new school has a great reading culture going on, and it seems like a lot of kids approach me looking for “a good book” (dream come true!). I am also trying to wrap my head around the budget money I have available and getting some orders pushed through. I am also working on setting up a MinecraftEDU server because I have this tremendous pile of teenage boys who come in during “breakfast break” and sit on my library couches playing Minecraft on their respective personal mobile devices. What an opportunity! My principal is really hoping to re-work a back room in the library and have me create a Makerspace area in there too. What an even bigger opportunity!

Wish me luck, clarity and grace as I travel down this road. I feel like it was the right, err, a good, umm, a solid decision. I pray that I look back on this tumultuous August someday with affection and relief.

The Cay: A Critical Analysis

The CayWritten in 1969 by Theodore Taylor, The Cay is the story of a white boy, Phillip, who gets stranded on a cay with an elderly, black West Indian stranger named Timothy after German submarines in the Caribbean torpedo their ship. Phillip is initially weary of Timothy due to prejudice instilled in him by his mother, but has to depend on Timothy and his survival experience, especially since Phillip has no vision due to a nasty head injury sustained during the shipwreck. As Timothy provides for them and teaches Phillip independence and survival skills, Phillip has a change of heart and grows to care for Timothy, despite their racial differences. When a hurricane ravishes the island, Timothy physically shields Phillip from the wrath of the storm. Timothy is severely weakened by the injuries and unable to recover. It is then up to Phillip, alone and still sightless, to orchestrate his own rescue. The book is a simple coming-of-age story, exploring prejudice and acceptance. In the fight for survival against the elements, the friendship between the characters grows and we see a transformation in Phillip as he realizes the sacrifice and selflessness that Timothy has offered.

Controversy and Racism in the Book

When Theodore Taylor wrote this novel, it was well-intentioned and initially well-received. The following year, it received the 1970 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, which is awarded annually to “children’s books published the preceding year that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence” (Jane Addams Peace Association). In the years that followed, however, it drew criticism for being a racist novel, especially from the Council on Interracial Books for Children (also known as the CIBC), leading to Taylor’s decision in 1975 to return the prize.

Jane Addams book awardTaylor wrote the book from the perspective of a “racially programmed” 11 year-old white boy. He states that he very intentionally wrote Phillip’s racist descriptions and reactions to Timothy in order to drive the theme of change (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 286). Even Timothy’s use of the expression, “young bahss” for the first 40 pages of their relationship (Taylor, The Cay 30-72) is a deliberate use of dialect to show the social relationships between white and black people during this time period. The CIBC claims that Timothy’s characterization is harmful to children and “conforms to the traditional stereotype of the faithful slave or retainer who is happy to serve and even sacrifice his life for his ‘young bahss’” (CIBC 283). However, to be considered historically and regionally accurate, from Timothy’s Calypso dialect, taken from Taylor’s first-hand experiences in the Caribbean to the initial relationship between Phillip and Timothy, The Cay needed to unfold as written. Taylor felt that Timothy was compassionate and could patiently “cope with the mindless mouthings of a child” (Taylor, “In the Mailbag, 287). Marianne (57) cites the explanation in Pearson Education’s “Teacher Notes” on the book,

It is important in the novel that Timothy is black, and Phillip white… Like black people in many parts of the world at that time, [Timothy] would still have felt any white person to be his social superior… This is why he calls Phillip ‘young boss’ [sic]. Yet despite this, the friendship that grows between Timothy and Phillip is simply that between an old man and a young boy, not between ‘master’ and ‘servant’ or even black and white.

It would not have been realistic for Timothy to speak or act differently, even if critics think that his character is negatively stereotyped.

Instead, there are several places in the novel that we see evidence of Phillip’s growing acceptance, one being on page 72 when he asks Timothy to shed the title of “young bahss”. Taylor wanted Phillip to reach the point of symbolic color-blindness, in addition to his literal blindness (Taylor, “In the Mailbag” 287). At first we hear it in Phillip’s thoughts (76): “I moved close to Timothy’s big body before I went to sleep. I remember smiling in the darkness. He felt neither white nor black” and then in his words (100): “Timothy, are you still black?” Though perhaps a perspective of a white person wishing whiteness on a person of color, the receding of Phillip’s prejudice is still a dramatic change.

Place in School Libraries and Curriculum

From an intellectual freedom standpoint, I believe that it is important to provide access to titles that might be considered to be controversial so that readers can compare and critically review them if they wish. Knowing that there has been some controversy surrounding The Cay and that readers continue to seem interested in the book (according to my “nonscientific” analysis of demand at my high school library), I would consider purchasing it for a school library. That said, I would be cautious in my recommendation for elementary school libraries because I believe the book is meant for a middle level audience.

The protagonist may only be a couple years older than some elementary students and the reading level may also be a fit—elements that can indicate age-appropriateness. Many librarians and teachers are comfortable with encouraging readers to shoot high and read books meant for older readers as a way to increase reading skill. However, when a book is challenged and criticized for racial stereotyping, for example, as in the case of The Cay, it is important to consider the critical thinking abilities of the readers. Without guidance, younger children may not identify content as problematic and it would be a disservice to include such titles as multicultural literature for recreational reading. This is not to say that elementary readers couldn’t handle this text in language arts or social studies curriculum under the tutelage of an experience teacher. Placement in middle school and high school libraries makes more sense to me. These readers are more likely to be able to identify critical material outside of classroom instruction. Though high school students will be slightly older than the main character, the plot is still engaging.

In the case of curriculum, elementary teachers might find ways to pair this book with another book, perhaps something more contemporary, written about similar themes such as cross-cultural acceptance or personal transformation. In this way, teachers can provide students with another reference point and discourage the acceptance of a text at face value without using a critical lens to examine its weaknesses. Ideally, however, this book fits better in the curriculum of older students. High schoolers may find The Cay to be a quality specimen of multicultural work that came out of the 1960s and interesting in the context of that social climate. For example, Taylor’s book dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King is an example of evidence that students might consider in their analysis. A unit associated with a 10th grade U.S. History course (perhaps collaboratively with a 10th grade English Language Arts course) would work really well with The Cay, given the abilities and course content involved. I could see middle school language arts and social studies curriculum approaching this book with either (or both) of my elementary and high school suggestions. Similar to several of the Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (60), the primary goals of including The Cay in curriculum would be to use the text in a critical way that asks students to analyze how themes develop and assess how the author’s background shapes the content.

Informing My Recommendations

In my analysis, I looked for critical reviews of The Cay from the period when it was published, as well as more contemporary reviews. I found primary sources written by Theodore Taylor and a main detractor, the CIBC, in the “In the Mailbag” column of the American Library Association’s Top of the News publication. It was important to me to hear the author explain his rationale and defend his work in his own words. I also needed to find alternative views that conflicted with my own so that I was confident in my rationale.

I tried to only consult sources by those considered to be authorities in the field of multicultural and children’s literature. For example, Horn Book and its writers have a well-respected reputation among librarians. A blog article I found was also written by a former contributor to Horn Book and in the comments section of the post, I noticed that Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (and someone whom I respect very much), had participated in the discussion.

It was useful to examine the historical context of the book and our country at the time it was published (and criticized). By referencing the Common Core State Standards, the criteria for the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Materials Selection Policy of the school district where I work, I was able to consider core values common to teachers and librarians choosing books and driving curriculum.

Place in Multicultural Literature

Multicultural literature includes books that serve as windows into and mirrors of parallel cultures. The reading experience should provide enlightenment for cultural outsiders but not reinforce stereotypes; this is a “window.” Cultural insiders should be able to see themselves, as if in a mirror, in characters experiencing real life adventures, triumphs, and failures. We need multicultural literature because all children in a democratic society deserve representation in the social and academic culture of that society. If we expect to grow as a society, we need to hear everyone’s voice. It is difficult to hear those who cannot be heard on a larger scale and are absent from our media. Multicultural books can be that equalizer though.

It is perhaps not as simple as Taylor suggests—that the example of Phillip’s change of heart might inspire a white audience to be more accepting of racial differences. However, the CIBC’s attempts to keep this book out of recommended lists, schools, and libraries could actually be considered censorship (Bader 663). Instead, as Susan Griffith suggests in her article, ““So the Very Young Understand”: Reframing Discussion of The Cay” (31) that these criticisms brought up in the 1970s can push readers to evaluate what we can learn from the racism in the book. Even Beryle Banfield, former President of the CIBC, suggests that controversial portrayals of African Americans in literature is likely a long-term dilemma that is best handled by creating an education that develops understandings between people and cultures (22).

By teaching students how to read critically and consistently providing multicultural texts written by cultural insiders and outsiders, we as educators and librarians can promote positive change in the identity formation and understanding of our youth. Books such as The Cay were formative in helping the dominant culture see multiple perspectives. The discussion and controversy around books like this can also have the positive effect of challenging the status quo and encouraging analytical thinking.

 

References

Bader, Barbara. “How the Little House Gave Ground: The Beginnings of Multiculturalism in a New, Black Children’s Literature.” The Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 6 (November 2002): 657-673.

Banfield, Beryle. “Commitment to Change: The Council on Interracial Books for Children and the World of Children’s Books.” African American Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 17-22.

Council on Interracial Books for Children. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3 (April 1975): 282-284.

Griffith, Susan C. ““So the Very Young Know and Understand”: Reframing Discussion of the Cay.” The Horn Book Magazine 88, no. 5 (September 2012): 27-31.

Jane Addams Peace Association. “What are the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards?” Jane Addams Peace Association. Accessed May 11, 2014. http://www.janeaddamspeace.org/jacba/about.shtml

Marianne. “A Comparative Analysis of Racism in the Original and Modified Texts of The Cay.” Reading in a Foreign Language 19, no. 1 (April 2007): 56-68.

Sieruta, Peter D. “Collecting Children’s Books: This One Really Did Happen.” Collecting Children’s Books (blog), April 7, 2009, http://collectingchildrensbooks.blogspot.com/2009/04/this-one-really-did-happen.html

Taylor, Theodore. “In the Mailbag.” Top of the News 31, no. 3(April 1975): 284-288.

Taylor, Theodore. The Cay. 1969. Reprint. New York: Random House, 2002.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading.” Common Core State Standards for Literacy in All Subjects. Last modified September 2011. http://standards.dpi.wi.gov/files/cal/pdf/las-stds.pdf

What do we do with Little House on the Prairie now?

I posit the following: Little House on the Prairie is culturally insensitive.

Do Not Read poster graphicAs a librarian, censorship is not the answer, nor is censorship through selection an answer either. Just as I would want my patrons to have access to Mein Kampf or the Bible, readers should be able to access Little House on the Prairie. We can never know a reader’s intent anyway; perhaps a reader is doing comparative analysis for a dissertation and is looking at portrayals of Native Americans throughout literature…

However, if Little House goes out of print, and it becomes difficult to replace a worn-out copy, then we move on. Likewise, if it stops circulating and the library can use its shelf space more productively, so be it. My hypothetical (albeit, nonexistent) sentimental attachment to the book is irrelevant at that point and we go with the library’s weeding policy. This is why libraries have circulation policies after all. There are archives and special historical collections (there is one at the CCBC, for example) that will preserve access if the book merits preservation.

If I had a teacher colleague looking to do a unit on Little House, I would try to encourage him/her to be careful not to gloss over the cultural insensitivities and pair it with another book like Birchbark House for a more balanced perspective. I was personally very troubled by the portrayal of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie, so I would have a hard time as a school librarian promoting or recommending it to young readers just looking for a recreational read, because I think it merits a contextualized, critical view.

LHP Indians illustration

image from http://newspaperrock. bluecorncomics.com/2008/02/ stereotypes-on-prairie.html

I do not believe that level of critical thinking is common in the average 3rd grade independent reader. I am not trying to diminish or discredit the abilities of young thinkers, but I believe that teaching critical reading is like teaching information literacy: “If it’s on the internet, it must be true” and “If it’s in my book, it must be true.” I know adults who think like this. Not okay! It takes practice (and obviously, some of us did not get enough…) To me, a book like Little House that inspires strong distaste among the minority group portrayed within deserves to be handled intentionally and critically by the teachers and adults presenting it to our society’s children, so as not further negate this group.

A colleague of mine used to teach on a reservation in North Dakota. She told me a story of a friend she had there who had grown up in one of those Indian Boarding Schools. As a girl, she used to sneak into a “restricted room” to get the “good books” and subsequently read all the Little House books. She said that in light of the “white,” suppressive education she was receiving and the often negative portrayals of Indians she read about in fiction, she could not even see herself. “Indians were fearsome and evil.” Not until she was an adult did she realize what had been taken from her–intentionally or not. Imagine she had read Little House under the tutelage of someone who helped her challenge what was unfair about it. Her identity and self-perception might have developed differently.

A new librarian’s collaborative dilemma

I’ve learned that it’s usually much easier to walk into a mess than to be the next act following a rockstar. (Sometimes, this also applies to dating.) Any improvements you make will typically be well-received. However, sometimes people lower their expectations and get used to your role as a non-effective one.

This week in my information literacy course, we were faced with cases of hypothetical librarians, struggling to create collaborative relationships in their libraries. The hypothetical middle school librarian approached a seemingly friendly colleague and offered to work with him on a research project to integrate some information literacy skills. He shot her down and questioned her ability to help him with social studies. The librarian’s predecessor probably never worked like this with teachers and they probably were pretty used to taking care of themselves. I would also suspect that the former librarian didn’t play well with others in general. When faced with a disheartening rejection like this one, it is pretty tempting to back off. She could try and re-phrase her offer, possibly starting small by offering a simple mini-lesson with his class about using a database in the computer lab that he feels more comfortable in. He may not bite though, since he has already blown her off.

Another thing to try is to simply offer her services to another teacher (and if she stuck with the Social Studies department, the endorsement would be more likely to sell her first rejector on it later.) Sometimes, teachers are grumpy or have a hidden grudge that you might not be able to predict. A silly example, but last year, I tried to organize a moral-boosting lunch treat in my building, hosted by teachers with March birthdays. I didn’t get a lot of response after my email, so I decided to check in personally with the silent parties before ditching the idea. I checked in with Mrs. B and she shot me down so cruelly that I walked out of there with a trembling lip. (I mean, really, asking her to bring in a bag of shredded cheese apparently was out-of-line. But she didn’t have time to have lunch, she said.) I almost gave up, but checked in with another science teacher next door to her whose response was, “Yes! What do you want me to bring? How can I help?”

My point is, you just never know “who’s in” or “who’s out.” Baby steps. Building a culture isn’t always easy.

My suggestion for the school librarian’s plan of action:

  1. Make a menu of quick mini-lesson or push-in instructional ideas that teachers could use her for… email it out and make some small cardstock/ laminated bookmarks/magnets that she could stuff in teacher mailboxes so they’ll have it around and think of her sometime. She’ll have to start small to build a culture.
  2. Try again with the nay-saying social studies teacher, but don’t expect him to bite until she has a track record. Approach other teachers in the social studies department personally with the above mentioned menu of services.
  3. Try attending a middle school team meeting a few times and just listen. She might get some ideas on what teachers are struggling with and find ways to help. Showing up regularly would build trust and credibility.

Annotation: Collaboration

Immroth, B., & Lukenbill, W. (2007). Teacher-School Library Media Specialists Collaboration through Social Marketing Strategies: An Information Behavior Study. School Library Media Research, 101-16. Retrieved October 6, 2013, from http://www.ala.org/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/slmrb/slmrcontents/volume10/immroth_teacherslmscollaboration

This study examined how social marketing strategies can be a tool for fostering collaborative relationships in schools between teacher-librarians, content teachers and student librarians (i.e. practicum school librarian graduate students). The study is thoroughly documented and reflects its validity as exploratory research, but I was most interested in the strategies the librarians tried. By using the concept of social marketing, which aims to benefit the audience and society instead of the marketer, and the Attention Interest Desire Action (AIDA) model, the researchers were able to give a common framework for their participants to pursue this type of collaboration. Though written as an academic research article, its application of the AIDA model could be potentially more useful to practitioners seeking to improve their collaborative efforts than a simple list of tips—like eating lunch with other teachers in the teacher’s lounge or sharing names of new DVDs with targeted teachers.

Distinguishing between Black-Hat and White-Hat Search Engine Optimization

A quick lesson idea for teaching information literacy and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to high schoolers…

Audience: High School Students using Google as a source for homework help

Activity: To show students the importance of being able to distinguish black-hat and white-hat SEO results, I would model an example of how they use Google inefficiently as a source to complete assignments. For example, I would copy a question they might search for verbatim, complete with WH- words and question marks, so that they could see how much time they waste by using search terms that produce black-hat results. In this way, they could see examples of black-hat and white-hat SEO results before they get started on the activity.

Then, students will participate in a “Bad-Match Scavenger Hunt” activity. Students will use homework assignment prompts from one of their actual core classes (such as U.S. History or Biology) and will use the questions on the worksheet to try to encounter as many black-hat results as possible. Once they find some, they will show a screen shot of the result summary and then the actual page of the black-hat website. Each student will prepare their “top-3 ridiculous results” to share with the class (or within small-groups, depending on class size). A discussion will follow to help students identify the markers of black-hat SEO in their results and how they can avoid them in their search terms.

E-books and E-wolves

E-book sales are rising: Amazon, the largest bookseller in the U.S. has been reporting since 2011 that it sells more e-books than print books. In fact, book readership is also rising, partially because of the spread of e-books. The Pew Research Center published a report in April 2012 that the average e-book reader reads more books a year than the average non-e-book reader.  In the U.K., The Guardian reported in August 2012 that Kindle users there were buying four times as many books as they were before becoming a Kindle-owner. In a more recent Pew study published October 2012, younger readers are actually reading even more than adults. E-books haven’t completely replaced print books in the lives of readers, but usage is growing and we may see them dominate someday soon, given the sale trends in the book market. Regardless, people are starting to agree that we are seeing a true “renaissance of reading.” With change and opportunity, however, come the wolves; in this case, the “digital” wolves.

Librarians, both public and school, have been wise to respond to the popularity of e-reading. Many libraries are experimenting with lending out e-readers pre-loaded with digital books. It is becoming more common for public libraries to subscribe to services like OverDrive, so that patrons can check out e-books from the library for free on their personal e-readers. Similarly, some schools are using Follett Shelf to provide e-book access to students and teachers.

Unfortunately, there is often a sticker-shock attached to the transition to e-books. These are definitely not cheap services—and the Digital Rights Management (DRM) policies of these e-book providers leave consumers at the mercy of the publishers’ whims. On the surface, it appears DRM policies are used to combat piracy so that e-book files will not be set loose to be copied and distributed freely on the Internet. However, DRM is much more powerful than that; it ties e-books to specific distributers and devices. That is, if you buy an Amazon e-book, their intention is that you can only read it on an Amazon device, likewise with Barnes and Noble Nook e-books, etc.

If a library decides to go with a service like OverDrive, they pay for an annual subscription to a finite number of copies. If they stop paying for the subscription, they lose the e-books. A base subscription might cost a school library $4000 a year, with $2000 of that available for selecting the actual e-books. An elementary school librarian that I know in the Madison Metropolitan School District told me that this would represent about 75% of his entire budget for library materials—for most school librarians, this would be a non-option. With Follett, a library purchases the e-books indefinitely for a higher cost than a print book, but with limitations on which books are available or how a book can be accessed. Price inflation and price setting among these publishers and suppliers has meant that the e-book purchasing power for a library is probably shrinking.

Is this simple supply-and-demand, where the publishers and suppliers know that consumers are willing to pay exorbitant prices because of the uniqueness or convenience of the product? Or are they simply taking advantage because no one has stepped in to stop them? Anti-trust laws were put into place at the turn of the century so as to protect consumers from unfair price controls and business practices. While there have been some minor challenges to content providers like Amazon and Apple, it seems that, as far as the law is concerned, digital content is still in its infancy and consumers are not the ones in control. The proverbial wolves are in the henhouse.

When you purchase a DRM e-book, the book is never truly yours. Unlike most purchases, once the money changes hands, the product is not totally in the consumer’s possession; publishers or distributors have control over where and if you can access it. Strings are always attached. Case in point: Media commentator Martin Bekkelund wrote a blog post in October 2012 about an Amazon customer, Linn Jordet Nygaard, whose Kindle was remotely wiped and her entire Kindle library deleted with no proper explanation from Amazon, other than that they reserve this right and that she is hereby black-listed. (Update: after a lot of bad press and general uproar from the web community, Linn’s Kindle library was mysteriously reactivated.) While this has not been my experience with Amazon Customer Service and my Kindle account—I have always found them to be exemplary, fair and honest—it is an important reminder not to take your rights as a consumer for granted. In this case, it’s probably best to think of e-books not as owned, but rented.

What are libraries to do if they want to be fiscally responsible while responding to their patrons’ demands? It seems pretty risky to go all-in and make an investment that could be negated at the whim of a content provider. Furthermore, vendors that provide viable options with a decent amount of content seem to have priced themselves at a level that is out-of-reach for many libraries.

A grassroots movement called ReadersFirst.org is encouraging libraries to band together and advocate for their e-book users. However, it’s high time that we as consumers and taxpayers also band together for our libraries to demand that e-book publishers and suppliers stop taking advantage of our public money and provide a fair service at a fair price. Perhaps the government needs to invoke anti-trust laws against the monopolistic, monopsonistic and oligopolistic behaviors that prey on our library and school budgets.

My Self-Published eBook (TRY ME!)

Here is my eBook Publishing handout.

As part of my Director’s Brief, I tried my hand at digital self-publishing. This is a multi-media guide with text, pictures and videos. (So if you have a black-and-white eReader, the content will be limited.) Here is one of my attempts, created on Apple’s iWork Pages:

http://tinyurl.com/knitbook08092012

Please try it out! It’s a little buggy yet with line return formatting (and I suspect that all of the video clips are showing the same thing somehow, at least on my device), but I’m moving on for now. You have a couple of options for access:

  • download the file (39.6MB) and load it to your device manually
  • open the link in a browser on a device enabled to read EPUBs
  • download it and use something like www.magicscroll.net or the Firefox add-on called EPUBReader

If you have an Apple device, this is easy…
a) import it into your iTunes library and then sync it with your books.
b) open the link in a Safari browser and iBooks will take care of the rest!

It is published as an EPUB, which according to Wikipedia, can be read on the following platforms (pretty much everything, except Amazon devices):

Unfortunately if you are a Kindle user, as I am, you are out of luck for the moment. Amazon’s eReaders do not support the EPUB format quite yet. (There are rumors that they will someday…)

So, what do you think…?