September 18, 2014

Ebrary Cultivates a Niche in the Public Library Market

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(Library Journal is presenting a series of articles called Exploring Ebook Options that takes an in-depth look at some of the ebook platforms now in the marketplace. The series, focusing primarily on the public library market, has so far provided an ebook primer for libraries just starting out with downloadable media as well as profiles of  Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360, Library Ideas’ Freading, and Ebooks on EBSCOhost. This story examines  ebrary’s Public Library Complete.)


Ebrary’s flagship ebook product is Academic Complete, but the ProQuest unit has also offered for two years a parallel product in the public library channel called Public Library Complete that some libraries are finding a congenial fit as they sort through the growing number of offerings on the market.

The main selling point of Public Library Complete is that a library acquires immediate access to a base collection of about 28,000 ebooks under a simultaneous, multi-user model. Kevin Sayar, ebrary’s president and general manager, says that obtaining this “opening day collection,” this critical mass of ebooks, is crucial to intelligent collection management since a library can analyze its usage and use that analysis as a point of departure for further acquisition decisions.

“You want to assure that when users look for something they actually find something, and the best way to do that is to have a foundational collection, a critical mass of ebooks, that brings you volume across multiple subject areas, and then, based on use, you start strategically adding titles,” said Sayar, who co-founded ebrary in 1999 with Christopher Warnock.

Collection and pricing

About 5000 titles in the core collection are in Spanish, and the content is from over 500 different publisher imprints, including AMACOM, John Wiley & Sons, and Greenwood Publishing Group. The collection has a significant amount of reference material, and it is generally broken down along the lines of school and studying, career development, arts and leisure, and practical life skills.

Becky Brewer, the head of information services for the Jackson County Public Library in Indiana, decided to subscribe to Public Library Complete as a complement to OverDrive’s service after attending a session at the PLA Conference in March in Philadelphia.

“I don’t want to buy a lot of reference stuff that doesn’t get used,” Brewer said. “The great number of books on ebrary really sold us.”

Sayar says that filling that type of niche is ebrary’s goal.

“We are complementary to products like OverDrive or Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 at this time,” he said.

Ebrary has 67 public library customers, in most cases with multiple branches so the number of subscribers is in the hundreds (e.g., Multnomah County Library OR, which signed on in early 2011,  has 18 branches). Other libraries that have subscribed include the Juneau Public Libraries, AK, Boulder Public Library, CO, all the public libraries in Delaware via the state Division of Libraries, and the Toronto Public Library, to name a few.

“It has added a dimension to our ebook collection that is not fully supplied by OverDrive,” said Pat French, director of collection services in Multnomah. “We have also been able to share it with local high school libraries under a special provision of the ebrary contract. This enables us to support local schools in a unique way.”

Ebrary, which is headquartered in Palo Alto, CA, competes in some areas with products like Gale’s Virtual Reference Library, and it is also similar to the Freading service from Library Ideas in the sense that a large collection of titles jumps ready made onto the digital shelf and is available via a truly digital lending model—simultaneous, multi-user. However, ebrary is a subscription service based on population served (or FTE for the academic market) while Freading charges a one-time upfront $150 fee that is followed by charges per download.

The minimum list price for a subscription to Public Library Complete is $4,320 up to 43,200 population served and then it is 10 cents per capita thereafter, according to Tish Wagner, an ebrary product specialist.

“[The] price is … quite reasonable when compared to comparable ebook resources,” French said. “However, the price increased 10 percent after ProQuest purchased ebrary [in January 2011], so we will be keeping an eye on any future increases.”

Catherine Nathan, director of the First Regional Library in Hernando, MS, said her goal was to add “a good collection of nonfiction ebook titles to the collection kind of in a hurry…and ebrary fit the bill.” The price was $15,000, she said, although that apparently is a discount, since it works out to about five cents per capita.

However, the complementary relationship with OverDrive does not always materialize. The Delaware Division of Libraries went live with OverDrive in December, which has resulted in a substantial decline in the use of ebrary content from about 1000 circs a month to about 450.

“The usage is just not there and so we have decided not to renew our contract with ebrary,” said Annie Norman, the state librarian.

The ebrary numbers in Delaware work out to about to about $9.25 per use, while the 10,000 OverDrive titles circulating a month coms out to an estimated $1.75 per use.

“OverDrive is a much better solution for us,” Norman said.

MLibrary at the University of Michigan has been a satisfied subscriber to Academic Complete (which includes 70,000 titles) for several years, but the library began offering Public Library Complete as well in the first week of May because it provided needed additional service at a “very modest per FTE rate,” according to Pam MacKintosh, the coordinator for undergraduate library reference services.

Michigan’s Shapiro Undergraduate Library houses a browsing print collection that targets undergraduates reading interests beyond their research and curricular needs.

“We have limited shelf space in our browsing collection, so by subscribing to ebrary’s Public Library Complete collection we are able to add a significant number of books to our general interest collection without needing additional shelf space,” MacKintosh said.

In addition to that practical consideration, MacKintosh said, despite “significant overlap” with Academic Complete, the public library collection offers some unique content that fits the academic curriculum, not just leisure reading.

“There is a fairly decent-sized collection of ethnic and foreign culture cookbooks,” MacKintosh said. “We are often asked for recipes from different cultures for assignments in language and culture courses, but we have very few appropriate cookbooks in our regular print collections. The cookbooks in Public Library Complete will be able to meet most of those needs, and with multi-user access, one student won’t block access to the rest of the class.”

MacKintosh also said that the children’s books in the ebrary collection, both fiction and nonfiction, would help supplement the print collection, which has a limited budget and focuses mainly on award winners. The ebrary collection will be valuable for faculty teaching in education and school library programs.

The foreign-language titles also helped sell MacKintosh on the service, and these works also attracted the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP). IIP is the State Department’s public diplomacy (PD) communications bureau that supports U.S. Embassy PD engagement with overseas audiences. IIP has oversight of the Office of American Spaces, which manages the information resource officer corps and supports the network of more than 700 American spaces abroad, including embassy libraries.

Chris Zammarelli, a metadata librarian for the Office of American Spaces in Washington D.C., and Sheila Weir, the division chief for applied technology, estimated that their office has about 300 spaces across Latin America where the ebrary Spanish-language collection would be of particular use. They also found a certain versatility in the ebrary collection that met the needs of their broad international audience, which has varying degrees of research skill and access to information.

“We might have an academic who doesn’t have access to a library so that could be the person using it, or it might be a ten-year-0ld whiz kid from Armenia,” Weir said. “It’s like a public library on a global scale.”

The bureau offers about 30 proprietary databases through elibraryusa.

“Of all the databases, this is the one we had a very enthusiastic response for,” Weir said.

Access models

Once a library subscribes to the Public Library collection, there is no additional charge as ebrary adds titles throughout the year, and there is no hosting fee.

In addition, a library can enhance the subscription with individual titles that are licensed through ebrary or third-party services. In particular, ebrary announced in January that it had integrated with Title Source 3, Baker & Taylor’s ordering platform (it already had integrated with B&T’s YBP GOBI platform on the academic side).

B&T recently announced a major enhancement to Title Source 3 that allows librarians to do all their print and digital collection development within a single workflow.

“I think that consolidation was worthwhile for us to wait for” before integrating, Sayar said.

Although not offering quite as many access options as Ebooks on EBSCOhost, the additions to the base collection can be triggered using patron-driven acquisition (PDA), still a novelty for many public libraries. Ebrary makes about 120,000 titles available through PDA, and libraries select a pool of titles to expose in their OPAC. The titles are licensed and added to the collection on a one-book, one-user model once a meaningful usage occurs (e.g., a user spends ten minutes within a book). The pricing is at publisher list price and there is no hosting fee if the library is a subscriber. These titles remain part of the library’s permanent archive (PA) collection even if the subscription lapses (but then there is a hosting fee).

Most librarians contacted for this article were not using or were unaware of this option, but ebrary’s Wagner said it had been “well received” by librarians with whom the company has spoken.

Although ebrary encourages starting with the core collection, a library does have the option of setting up a PDA list and acquiring titles one by one as usage dictates, according to Wagner; that would increase the risk of burning through the budget too quickly.

“The main message has to do with making the most of the library’s budget,” Wagner said. “It’s really important going forward to make the most of your acquisition.”

Having that core collection as a starting point helps ensure smarter decision making as libraries combine various acquisition models, Sayar said.

Kevin Sayar, ebrary’s president and general manager

“The use of electronic material is much more transparent and so it gives you a lot of clues of how you should comprise your PDA or PA repository,” he said.

Libraries can also choose certain titles to license outright and permanently archive, and ebrary is developing preselected perpetual archive packs specifically for public libraries. These off-the-shelf packs will include career development, small business ownership, and entrepreneurship. Pricing per title is at publisher list price for single-user access, and 150 percent of list price for unlimited multi-user access where available.

Subscribers to Public Library Complete can also upload and integrate their own digital content on the ebrary platform with DASH! ™ (Data Sharing, Fast).

Discovery and formats

Integration is important not only for acquisition workflow but also for discovery. To this end, ebrary provides free MARC records with every title. In addition, if a library wishes to have a highly customized MARC record, these are available for purchase through the YBP relationship. 

One concrete result of the acquisition by ProQuest will be an increased integration and discovery of ebrary’s ebooks with other ProQuest content.

“There will be more and more integration with other ProQuest products as we go forward,” Sayar said. “As we get through the integration there will be a common user interface experience, so regardless of what you search it will look and feel the same and it will search both.”

Ebrary is also working with ProQuest’s Serial Solutions to have all ebrary titles fully indexed in the Summon discovery service, which will make discovery of ebrary titles more effective than what could be achieved through the use of MARC metadata alone.

Sayar did not have a timeline for the integration to be completed, but it will be similar to the integration that EBSCO accomplished after its acquisition of NetLibrary, now Ebooks on EBSCOhost.

“We have added records for the individual titles into our ILS which increases the findability of these ebooks,” said French in Multnomah. “A patron does bounce from our ILS to the vendor’s interface, but that’s true of all of our outside resources. It’s no better or worse with ebrary. Authentication is invisible inside our libraries, and just one extra step when using remote access.”

French said the interface could use some improvement but that “Compared to the machinations involved with downloading an OverDrive title, the ebrary interface is simple and easy.”

The books are PDFs, although ebrary is working on displaying books in the ePub format. Online and offline access is available, including via a new dedicated app introduced in January for iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch). Compatible ereaders include the Nook, Kobo, and Sony, but not the Kindle. Chapter downloads are available for all devices, including Kindle, and Kindle Fire can be used via the Bluefire app.

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Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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