Over 70 library systems from the United States and Canada — including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, and Chicago — today issued a joint statement demanding vastly improved ebook services for library users in North America.
The statement, dubbed the ReadersFirst Initiative, outlines four principles the libraries want e-content providers — the middlemen between publishers and libraries — to follow in order to lift content restrictions and also make the borrowing experience less cumbersome.
“Libraries have a responsibility to fight for the public and ensure that users have the same open, easy and free access to ebooks that they have come to rely on with physical books,” the statement reads. “They face two major challenges. The first is that, unlike print books, publishers are not required to sell e-books to libraries – and many do not. This is a complex and evolving issue. The second, addressed here, is that the products currently offered by e-content distributors, the middlemen from whom libraries buy ebooks, create a fragmented, disjointed and cumbersome user experience.”
The four principles outlined in the letter, which is going to be sent to various distributors, were drafted and circulated by the New York Public Library (NYPL), said Christopher Platt, the director of collections and circulation operations at NYPL. Platt was speaking from the BEA convention taking place in New York City this week.
“We came up with some language and sent it around and it resonated and took off and it’s now really a joint statement. We did conference calls and robust communications so everyone had input,” Platt said. “A lot of us are at BEA on the floor having quality time with some of these distributors so it’s good timing and we can talk to them and articulate our concerns.”
The four principles demand that library users be able to:
- Search and browse a single comprehensive catalog with all of a library’s offerings at once, including all e-books, physical collections, programs, blogs, and donor opportunities. Currently, content providers often only allow searches within the products they sell, depriving users of the comprehensive library experience.
- Place holds, check-out items, view availability, manage fines and receive communications within individual library catalogs or in the venue the library believes will serve them best, without having to visit separate websites (libraries, not distributors, should be enabled to manage all interactions with users).
- Seamlessly enjoy a variety of e-content. To do this, libraries must be able to choose content, devices and apps from any provider or from multiple providers, without bundling that limits a library’s ability to serve content they purchase on platforms of their choice.
- Download e-books that are compatible with all readers, from the Kindle to the Nook to the iPad and so on.
“In order for libraries to continue to function as key providers of information to the public, these basic principles must be followed,” the statement said. “The libraries who signed this agreement are committed to holding content providers to this standard, and will prioritize these requirements when acquiring e-books and other e-content.”
The principles clearly reflect the growing dissatisfaction among librarians not only about their inability to get ebooks from publishers but also with the fractured nature of the lending experience.
In particular, even as some publishers demand more “friction” be added to borrowing, the librarians’ demand for a frictionless, seamless experience stems from the requirement that library patrons often have to jump interfaces when borrowing an ebook and librarians would prefer that the transaction remain within the confines of their OPAC or their discovery layer (such as Bibliocommons).
“Vendors have tried to make their platforms library-like, but the user is still off the library site and segregated from the rest of the library experience and collection,” Platt said. “We need to make sure we are not segregating our patrons in a place where we can’t walk them back to the experience we want them to have.”
For example, NYPL uses Bibliocommons as its discovery layer and it contains crowd-sourced comments on various titles in the NYPL collection.
“If you get pulled off to another econtent platform you’re only searching within that econtent frame and missing all that other stuff,” Platt said. “And as econtent broadens we’re creating multiple log-ins and there is no reason to. It’s time to take a comprehensive look and stand on how we want the technology and business model to develop, and we aren’t just talking about the publishers.”
The circulation of the statement coincided nicely with a meeting of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council last week in Ottawa which allowed all the members who were in attendance (26) to voice their support, according to Jefferson Gilbert, the executive director. The organization has 40 members in all.
“The statement is completely in line with what we were working on already,” he said, noting that it echoed a statement the council first put together in 2010.
Gilbert said that his organization is preparing a request for information (RFI) that hopes to find a company that can address some of the technological issues raised in the statement and effectively create a service bureau that would act as a type of “lending layer” for libraries alongside their discovery layer. Gilbert said they hope to start a pilot project by January 2013.
“It’s important for the user. This is a user based advocacy effort to make it better for the user,” he said.
To date, the only vendors that have achieved an ILS integration are 3M and Polaris, but even that integration would not hold together should a library also offer content from an additional provider, which is often the case.
OverDrive recently announced that its APIs would be available in July, which would at least make integration with the OverDrive platform more doable.
In the case of reading devices, Kindle compatibility is the holy grail for many ebook distributors, but only OverDrive has a deal with Amazon at present, even as more distributors are entering the market with their own platforms (eg., Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360, Ebooks on EBSCOhost, Freading) that are not compatible with Kindle yet.
The American Library Association’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group has been exploring issues of business models and accessibility, and the group will be meeting at the upcoming ALA annual conference in Anaheim on Sunday, June 24, from 1:30–3:30.
The confirmed signatories of the statement so far are:
Alameda County Library
Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Libraries
Arlington Public Library
Austin Public Library
Barrie Public Library
Bibliotheque de Gatineau
Bibliotheque de Montreal
Boston Public Library
Brooklyn Public Library
Burlington Public Library
Califa Library Group
Canadian Urban Libraries Council
CCS – Cooperative Computer Services
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
Chicago Public Library
Columbus Metropolitan Library
County of Los Angeles Public Library
Daniel Boone Regional Library
Dekalb County Public Library
Denver Public Library
District of Columbia Public Library
DPLA Steering Committee
Durham County Library
Edmonton Public Library
Fraser Valley Regional Library
Free Library of Philadelphia
Georgetown County Library
Greater Victoria Public Library
Halifax Regional Library
Hamilton Public Library
Hartford Public Library
King County Library System
Kitchener Public Library
Lincoln City Libraries
Los Angeles Public Library
Madison Public Library
Markham Public Library
Memphis Public library
Mid-Continent Public Library
Mississauga Public Library
Multnomah County Library
Nashville Public Library
New Orleans Public Library
The New York Public Library
Omaha Public Library
Ottawa Public Library
Peninsula Library System
Pierce County Library System
Pima County Public Library
Prince George’s County Memorial Library
Princeton Public Library
Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County
Sacramento Public Library
Salt Lake City Library
Salt Lake County Library
San Diego County Library
San Diego Public Library
San Francisco Public Library
Santa Clara County Library
The Seattle Public Library
Thunder Bay Public Library
Toledo-Lucas County Public Library
Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library
Toronto Public Library
Whitby Public Library
Wichita Public Library
Vancouver Island Regional Library
Vancouver Public Library
Vaughan Public Library