Daily Archives: October 14, 2010

eBook Feasibility for Public Libraries

For those not familiar with the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies or COSLA, it “is an independent organization of the chief officers of state and territorial agencies designated as the state library administrative agency and responsible for statewide library development.”

In June, 2010, COSLA published eBook Feasibility Study for Public Libraries – Final Report, containing timely and critical information for libraries attempting to remain relevant in a digital world..


In the fall of 2009, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) began an internal conversation about eBooks. What will they mean to the future of libraries, especially public libraries? Will these institutions be able to turn another digital format to its advantage, as they have with audiobooks? Or is it different this time? …

In this report, you’ll read concerns and ideas about access and ease of use for library eBooks, library purchasing models, shifting relationships with vendors and publishers, cost and selection, copyright and fair use, and how to make the public library’s voice heard as eBooks change how people read for leisure and learning. We found new roles for public libraries and ways that COSLA could help provide leadership.


Finding and using eBooks from the library is too difficult
Despite the rising demand for eBooks, all agreed that getting eBooks from libraries is not convenient or easy to do. We heard just as many concerns about this as assurances that eBooks will bring patrons to libraries. “One copy, one user” eBook licensing is hard to explain: the title is listed, digital, but not “checked out.” Plus, users must navigate through multiple layers and interfaces to find eBooks on a library site. To get one, they must load proprietary software on a personal computer, download the title there, then transfer it onto a reading device. Improving the eBook browsing and downloading experience for library patrons is critical for competing more effectively with commercial alternatives. When someone values convenience, as you might expect from eBook lovers, ease of use matters greatly.

The local view
While most respondents had no ideological problem with the idea of joining a larger buying pool at the national level, they nearly all expressed a few, similar reservations about it. Some doubted that libraries would be able to work together at that level in a timely, sensible way because they had all seen examples of long, drawn-out attempts to reach consensus about shared purchasing or other cooperative efforts at much lower levels within much smaller groups.

Letting go
Some respondents said they think the writing is on the wall for libraries. The smart thing to do may be to prepare for a new future and begin to let go of functions where public library’s
[sic] are no longer able to provide the most value or keep the public’s interest. eBooks may herald the beginning of this transition and should be considered in that light.

Reference services felt a similar upheaval as Google and Wikipedia began to reveal that people prefer self-service tools and will often take convenience over quality. For many lines of inquiry, good enough is good enough. Libraries no longer need to see themselves as the main place people would go for quick reference or looking up simple facts. That leaves time and money for something deeper and richer.

The public library’s main role as a democratic institution that procures and organizes content for the public good may also need to be examined and balanced against what other providers can do more effectively and how people prefer to receive information. If public libraries no longer need to worry so much about an archival role or providing popular materials, how should they fulfill a noble mission to support a vibrant “life of the mind” in their communities?

A few respondents felt libraries should shift from a content repository to a community center for learning and events. They urged a stronger focus on performance, programs, storytelling, and using physical space for social interactions that let people hear, learn, meet, and mingle around shared meaning. These respondents imagined a more curated or mediated experience with information. [Emphasis added.]


Background and methods
As electronic books grow within the public consciousness and more devices and economic models arise to vend them, public libraries are increasingly concerned about how it will affect their core audience. Many library leaders believe a tipping point is not far off. When enough people choose convenience over a sharing model, the relevance and mission of public libraries are in jeopardy. Libraries need to anticipate this shift and become part of the eBook story.

To discover what library leaders want and need to make eBooks an effective piece of their service model, COSLA worked with Pinpoint Logic, a design strategy company. We interviewed ten library managers and staff from urban, suburban, and rural public libraries. [Emphasis added.] … We analyzed these interviews to surface larger themes and insights that guided the remaining research with industry experts, through which we gathered a more complete picture and determined areas of opportunity for COSLA and its partners to pursue.

Participants expressed needs around eBooks in these areas:

    • Finding a low-cost way to lend devices through the library or let people try them out
    • Improving the ease of use for discovering and getting library eBooks
    • Expanding access to eBooks through larger collections and national buying pools while delivering real-time local statistics in a manner that helps library funders see the value of large-scale collaboration at the local level
    • Applying leverage to publishers and vendors for better pricing, licensing models, more reasonable copyright or DRM models around shared use, and standards
    • Exploring how libraries can transition from an emphasis on content supplier to creating spaces that invite social interaction around learning and living literature

These needs range from a short-term help to a long-term view. We feel the best strategy lies somewhere between. Would a national buying pool have the intended effect of bringing larger collections and a establishing a good foundation for additional leverage with publishers? If so, how does that effort raise the importance of solving the user experience issues in finding and getting library eBooks from a national project? And what local usage reporting would we need to provide to gain credibility and high participation from member libraries around the country?

Participants [industry experts] expressed opportunities for public libraries and eBooks within these seven areas of action:
• Purchasing power, vital collections: group purchasing leverage, tough vendor and publisher negotiation, and quality collection development
• One point, many libraries; using BookServer to deliver eBooks at the point of interest
• eBook reader certification: testing and assessing eBook reading devices against usability and design guidelines for public library use
• Research connections between library use and book buying: showing how public libraries support authors and publishers and feed an ecosystem of reading
• Create authors and support self-publishing: take advantage of the explosion in do-it-yourself publishing to differentiate public libraries from other sources of popular reading materials and better serve community needs
• Civic discourse and public policy: foster serious discussions and leadership around copyright and fair use
• Library as laboratory: prototyping new uses for library spaces, new ways to engage the public in a life of the mind, and identifying new skills for librarians

The Report goes on to elaborate on the following themes;
1. Assure Access: cooperate for quality
2. Data and Leadership: show value
3. Living Literature: discover new roles

and to offer scenario examples of implementation of actions within each theme (using a graphic novel format which I found interesting).

There is much about which librarians should be concerned in this report. The role of the library in the digital world, the efficacy of offering eBooks as a library service, taking on the publisher world as competition, etc., are all MAJOR library issues for the future – WHICH IS NOW.

The one caution I see in this report is the extremely small sample group used to collect the data. I question whether or not the data are representative of the vast majority of public libraries, and whether it prevents the conclusions drawn from being generalized to the entire public library community. Having said that, we are indebted to COSLA for their efforts on this major issue, and I strongly encourage all those interested in their future to read eBook Feasibility Study for Public Libraries – Final Report.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized