dan_cohen_bio_page_photo_300pxDigital Book World has just shared an interview with Dan Cohen, the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America (DLPA), about the Open eBooks initiative, already covered in TeleRead. There, Cohen gives some (alas very anecdotal) evidence about responses to the initiative so far, and some more insight into its founding motivations and goals.

[Update: In a Twitter message, Cohen cites a number from an announcement last week, one not included in the DBW interview. He says that “over a million access codes were distributed in just the 1st week,” so the evidence is “not just anecdotal.” – D.R.]

Unfortunately, Cohen doesn’t share many statistics or solid data on takeup of the Open eBooks initiative. He does say that: “We’ve gotten so many great emails and social media responses thanking President Obama for supporting us and publishers and partners for bringing together resources to make this happen. There are entire schools that have gained access to books.” As for publisher buy-in to the program, Cohen remarks that, “along with the wonderful feedback from students and teachers, we’ve also got incredible feedback from publishers. More publishers want to be involved and have their books in the app as well.” That said, at this point at least there’s no further names or details attached to that statement.

One really heartening item from the interview is what Cohen describes as “issues that ended up not being issues. We researched the availability of devices in low-income households and we discovered that that problem is thankfully starting to disappear.” Although, the problem is “not gone totally,” he adds, “we found in recent surveys that 85 percent of households within the poverty line own a device that’s able to host the app. This is a population where ebooks have started to take off as a supplement rather than replacements for physical books.”

My own very slightly – and very personal, dose of skepticism about the Open eBooks program (and this is nothing like a TeleRead house view), is that the linkage to the White House’s K-12 ConnectED initiative opens it to other influences besides the Obama administration’s very laudable support for early learning and literacy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is just one instance of the very many inroads and lobbying efforts that Big Media has made into the Obama administration, and U.S. government in general. I would be really glad to learn that the Open eBooks initiative has consistently put poor households’ needs above the interests of media owners, and that Big Five publishers have bent over backwards to do the same. I’d welcome reassurance on that. For now, though, my enthusiasm for the Open eBooks initiative remains qualified.


  1. @Paul: Delighted to see you writing about this. But something good for the kids is not necessarily bad for the big publishers or those of any other size. Savvy people at large and small houses alike will realize that the Open eBook program will EXPAND the market for their wares. It’s like giving away paperbacks or cigarettes to GIs during World War II. Here’s to samples!

    My greater concern is over the device issue. It’s not enough for households to own devices, period – what happens if different kids want to do their homework and only one gizmo is around, or if adults need the devices? Simply put, the number of devices within the household will be a crucial issue.

    Yet another issue would be the kind of device – some kids will respond better to tablets than to cell phones.

    Also, we need to worry about e-book literacy. As I keep saying again and again, reading an e-book is not like reading a paper book, whether the issue is navigation or dealing with the glare. Librarians and teachers don’t always pay enough attention. There are ways around these problems. This is one reason I’m so keen on the option of all text bold – so front or back lights can be turned down, and glare reduced.

    I am a big advocate of the cell phone book club concept to help individuals and families alike grow familiar with the technology and also discover and discuss books (see LibraryCity.org for more details). We need to create and reinforce a book culture. The actual content is just a start. Gadgets and remote libraries can’t replace school and public librarians. Meanwhile, lest anyone wonder, I’m using the term cell phone book club because that’s the most ubiquitous device, the one on people’s minds. But I’m all in favor of tablet reading, paper book reading, whatever works best. People should be able to participate in cell phone book club activities regardless of the device in use, or not in use.

    In addition, keep in mind that the Open Ebook program is not a substitute for a well stocked national digital public library system for all. Here again we’re talking about encouragement of the book culture, not just among the kids but among the parents, whose reading choices may differ considerably from their offspring’s. Let’s not make public libraries the equivalent of urban schools. They should be for all segments of the public, and I don’t think a program reaching only certain kids is the ultimate solution even though I’m very happy that the program exists. Imagine all the good that public libraries can do for the elderly, by engaging them mentally. The LibraryCity.org site contains a detailed proposal for the creation of a national digital public library system and also an academic system that would work closely it avoid duplication of resources, especially in the infrastructure area. The public system, especially, should enjoy input from people with a number of institutions – as opposed to a top-down approach.

    Now – to return to issue of kids and othe library users versus publishers. I wish all sides would worry a lot less about division of the pie and lot more about growing the pie. We’re spending only about four dollars per capita per year on public library books in the US. Get those two library systems going full strength, and a lot more money will be available for books. Simply relying on publishers for donations is not a sustainable model for a FULL-strength national digital public library system. That is what we need, as supposed to seeing libraries turned into ghettoes for the disadvantaged. The money for the endowment is there. Just 400 Americans are together worth north of two trillion. The endowment should provide for fair compensation of publishers, writers and other creators. I love the public domain, I love Creative Commons, I love the idea of smart publishers donating to the program, but in the end, the money needs to be there for creators to be paid as opposed to thinking of them simply in terms of donations.


  2. This discussion reminds me again of the question: What are the functional differences between eBooks and web sites for learning? Web sites are clearly more accessible and “cover” more content.
    Although I do think that eBooks (including eTextbooks) could provide a better learning environment, most do not. The Tower of Babel (created by commercial siloing) alone disadvantages eBooks with respect to accessibility.
    Note that this ignores credentialing which complicates and obfuscates the matter.