When the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies released in December its survey of downloadable media services in public libraries it contained some sobering figures, as LJ reported. Ten states reported that over 70 percent of their libraries did not offer downloadable ebooks, audiobooks and videos for use on portable devices like e-readers and smartphones. And four states — Oklahoma, Mississippi, Idaho, and New Mexico — reported that over 80 percent of their public libraries did not offer such services.
Oklahoma had the worst showing with 99 out of 115 library systems (86 percent) not offering such services. Together, these 99 libraries serve a population of 870,043.
The information came from the annual report that every library in the state has to complete, in this case covering FY11 which ended June 30. But even as the Oklahoma Department of Libraries (ODL) was compiling the information about ebook availability for the COSLA report, the ground in Oklahoma was beginning to shift as librarians banded together to effect change.
“Oklahoma is a state with many small rural libraries with small budgets,” said Susan McVey, the director of ODL to explain the origin of the yawning digital gap. “There definitely is a lack of funding since it relies mostly on sales tax, and if you have a community of 400 you don’t have a very big sales tax base,” she said.
As the already small and volatile local tax bases shrank during the recession, the ODL also had to cut state aid 19 percent.
“It would be a small number of libraries that could afford an ebook platform,” McVey said.
Platform fees and the cost of content are insurmountable for small libraries with tiny materials budget, like the one-building Miami Public Library in Ottawa County, the only library in the county of about 32,000 people.
“Last year for the first time in 10 years our materials budget was cut from $40,000 a year to $38,000,” said Marcia Johnson, the library’s director. Offering ebooks was not an option, unless Miami pooled its resources with libraries in a similar plight.
In early 2011, Johnson got in touch with Lynda Reynolds, the director of the Stillwater Public Library in Payne County, who on her own was exploring ebook platforms and talking to OverDrive.
“This service was very important to our patrons. They had been asking for it for over a year and we didn’t have the funding to do it,” Reynolds said. “It was difficult in our initial conversations with OverDrive, because they were asking $10,000 a year which was way out of our ballpark,” she said.
However, OverDrive told Reynolds that her library had the option to form a consortium, even if the consortium only comprised one library.
“We could have gone it alone, but we realized quickly it was much more cost efficient to launch the consortium,” said Scott Freeman, an adult services librarian in Stillwater.
Four other libraries joined the initial effort, and the Oklahoma Virtual Library (via OverDrive) was born one year ago and immediately began to have an impact on the digital gap that the COSLA survey did not fully capture.
Even though some libraries still face a financial hurdle in joining the consortium, it offers a tiered membership rate depending on service population. The figure quoted for each category is divided in two parts, one-third for the platform fee and two-thirds for required content purchases (membership is limited to libraries with a service population below 100,000):
- Service population up to 5000: $1,500 a year;
- Service population 5001 to 25,000: $3,000 a year;
- Service population 25,001 to 55,000: $6000 a year;
- Service population 55,001 to 100,000: $9000 a year.
In addition, the ODL provided a $100,000 Library Services and Technology Act grant to purchase content for the consortia in addition to the local libraries’ budget (each library pays OverDrive directly).
The result has been electric.
“When we decided to launch the consortium we were the only one, and we didn’t know if anyone would join us or not,” said Freeman, who is the consortium’s project manager. “But not a quarter has passed since we launched where we haven’t had multiple libraries wanting to join us. I get calls every week from libraries curious if they can swing it financially,” he said.
The consortium now has 26 members, a collection of over 8,000 titles, and has recorded 67,000 checkouts.
“Beginning in February 2012, 26 percent of the libraries will be offering ebooks and other downloadable media, up from 14 percent in the COSLA report, and an additional 253,938 people will have access from when the report was compiled,” said McVey of ODL. “Consortial purchasing among Oklahoma public libraries is a new approach to these challenges and has been very successful,” she said.
This still leaves 74 percent of public libraries in Oklahoma without downloadable services, but many librarians there at least are feeling a bit more able to address their patrons’ desires.
“We like to be as close to the new technology as we can and because we are small and rural we can’t offer every thing at first,” said Johnson in Miami. “But this is really important to people now, and people who don’t normally come to the library now want a library card because they want this service,” she said.