October 20, 2014

Bibliotheca Says Solution to Library Ebook Frustrations Has to Be National | ALA Annual 2012

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Jordana Vincent was one of the librarians honored Friday in Anaheim at Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers banquet. Her work in developing the innovative ebook lending model at Douglas County Libraries spurred the recognition. But later Friday, when the exhibit hall opened at the Anaheim Convention Center for the ALA annual convention, Vincent, like Monique Sendze, DCL’s former associate director of information technology, was wearing a black shirt emblazoned with the logo of Bibliotheca, her new employer.

Both Sendze and Vincent said they decided to join the fledgling ebook division launched this week by Bibliotheca, the giant international provider of library self-service technology, because they wanted to see the DCL model spread in a way that was not possible at just one library.

“I really felt strongly about supporting this model because we have been working so hard on this for over a year now, and this was a way to get it out to all the libraries that really need a solution,” Vincent said in the exhibition hall.

Just as Sendze provided the technical expertise to build the infrastructure that enabled many of the innovations at DCL, it was Vincent, nicknamed the Bulldog, who negotiated directly with publishers to obtain ebooks that DCL could own and house on the library’s servers.

“When you hire people with get up and go, don’t be surprised that they got up and went,” joked Jamie LaRue, the DCL director who was outside the convention hall.

Sendze said Bibliotheca’s still very amorphous ebook division will ultimately empower libraries.

“Basically, it’s to build on the concepts we started at DCL which gives purchasing power back to the libraries and to allow libraries to actually determine what ebook distribution models work for them,” Sendze said.

Bibliotheca’s ebook division, under Sendze’s direction, aspires to build an open-source, national, cooperative buying platform, with Bibliotheca providing technical support and hosting services. Bibliotheca said that it will debut the platform in early 2013 in North America, though some elements built on the DCL-developed model may be available earlier.

“What we realized is that many libraries came to us wanting to be able to do what DCL did, but many libraries cannot do it by themselves,” Sendze said. “And on the other side publishers will not work with libraries individually. Publishers were like ‘we love what you are doing but we don’t have the bandwidth to work with every individual library one at a time.’ ”

The project has a lot of details to work out yet, but Shai Robkin, the president and CEO for Bibliotheca in the America likened it to a food cooperative.

At times, with its national aspiration, it appears to have overlapping ambitions with the Digital Public Library of America but with the technology organization already on board. Or perhaps the plans being hatched in Canada to build a national infrastructure for ebooks. At other times, it harkens back to a proposal for a national buying pool first proposed by COSLA  in 2010, or to the $1 million buying pool that the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium recently established in order to expand its OverDrive-run Digital Download Center and, perhaps, gain some leverage in pricing.

Bibliotheca similarly hopes to lower acquisition costs by collective ebook purchases and passing along any discounts that may result to libraries.

“No one provides discounts and libraries are used to getting discounts on materials, that’s how we put our budgets to the best use and we’re not getting that from anybody,” Vincent said. “Having the ability to offer discounts to libraries is I think a huge factor in what would make this a positive alternative.”

Robkin described the venture as a public-private partnership with his company’s technological prowess not only making the platform doable but also serving as a reassurance to jittery publishers.

“Let’s not make any mistake about this. We are a for-profit institution but we believe that we can do real good for ourselves by doing real good for the library community,” Robkin said. “And we can bring these two parties —- publishers and libraries — together who really should be aligned, but somebody has to put it together.”

It wasn’t clear why publishers would feel more comfortable with Bibliotheca aggregating content and administering a platform over other companies, such as 3M, with similar expertise which, nonetheless, cannot get all the big publishers to sign on. There also is the potential that many publishers and distributors would resist selling to a consortial buying group because they fear the impact collective buying would have on duplicate sales.

LaRue said Bibliotheca’s approach would come down to a cooperative purchasing agreement and collective bargaining with the publishers. “If we aggregate all these dollars that we spend on materials can they drive the price down? I think the answer should be yes.”

In any case, the project also envisions enabling librarians to negotiate directly with publishers for content (“sweat equity” Robkin called it), which Robkin and LaRue said would be more practical and attractive if they have a platform administered by Bibliotheca at their back. It also would enable libraries to tap more easily into works by local or self-published authors.

“There are principles that we have to figure out, how do we negotiate with publishers,” said LaRue, “and then there’s the platform and that’s the huge barrier for most of the libraries. They can’t get there. They don’t have the technical expertise. And I think if Bibliotheca steps in and says ‘we have all this stuff worked out, here’s how we deliver content, we have relationships with publishers,’ it’s turn key.”

Robkin said the company can also leverage its long-standing relationships with ILS companies to integrate the platform with library OPACs. The number one reason he was at ALA was to start a conversation about the project and to get ideas.

“We want librarians to shoot holes in our model, tell us what’s wrong with this idea, and tell us, as importantly, where you might want to join us,” he said. “One thing is clear: there needs to be a single, national solution to this. Publishers don’t want to deal with individual libraries.”

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Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

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

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