It was a coup when 3M announced in June, just three months after Penguin Group had severed its relationship with OverDrive, that it had brought Penguin tentatively back into the library ebook fold through a pilot project with the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). The deal typified the way 3M has made its presence felt in the library ebook market, from striking such notable content deals to bringing its considerable experience as a technology company to bear on the development of its 3M Cloud Library platform and hiring away LJ reviews editor Heather McCormack.
“We really want options in the marketplace,” says Christopher Platt, director of collections for NYPL. “OverDrive is great, and they have done very well by us. They have a very smart, sophisticated, terrific platform…. But what [the pilot test] gives us is a chance to test a different platform, a different vendor. It brings competition into the marketplace.”
Taking on a dominant player like OverDrive is a gutsy move, but in the Cloud Library’s debut year, more than 70 library systems are already in various stages of rolling out the 3M platform. Even though, unlike OverDrive, it does not offer audiobooks, does not have Kindle compatibility, and has a collection of 200,000 titles, which is less than one-quarter the size of OverDrive’s, 3M says its ease of sign-up, ease of use, and ease of integration with other library systems make it a more than viable competitor.
Tom Mercer, head of digital library marketing for the 3M Cloud Library, directly contrasted the 3M Cloud Library sign-up process with OverDrive’s. Once users download the 3M app to their iPhone, iPad, or Android phone or tablet, “All they have to do is enter their state, select their library from a drop-down menu, and enter their library barcode,” he says. “There’s no other registration, there’s no other setup. It’s really simple. There’s no creating an Adobe ID, providing an email address, and creating a separate password.”
Libraries that discussed the new 3M platform with LJ tend to agree that their patrons found the platform very easy to use and the system’s sign-up process to be much more intuitive than OverDrive’s.
For libraries that loan out ereaders, 3M has also developed a proprietary, dedicated device that works seamlessly with the cloud system.
After signing up, patrons access a simplified browsing, discovery, and checkout system. Ebooks are grouped by category, and with one click, an ebook will either be placed on hold, or, if available, be immediately checked out to users’ cloud-based account and downloaded to their device.
“Their user interface is really easy to use, consistent, and friendly,” says Kevin Sarian, senior administrative analyst at the Glendale Public Library (GPL), CA, one of the system’s original beta-testers.
Patrons can also elect to view only items that are available for immediate checkout, a feature that 3M added at the suggestion of librarians.
“We heard clearly, so much of an [ebook] collection is checked out at any one time, patrons were getting frustrated looking for books, and finding books, finding books, finding books, and not having anything to check out,” Mercer says.
The use of cloud-based accounts also allows patrons to view their checked-out ebooks on multiple devices.
“It will sync across up to six devices,” says Matt Tempelis, 3M Cloud Library global business manager, who demonstrated the platform for LJ during the American Library Association annual conference in Anaheim, CA, this summer. A user could begin reading an ebook on an Android tablet one evening and pick up at the same spot on an iPhone during lunch the next day. “You’ll never lose your reading place, and you’ll have all of your notes and all of your information there for you.”
Stephanie Anderson, head of readers’ advisory for the Darien Library, CT, says that she uses this multidevice capability and notes that it’s a feature that will likely appeal to patrons who commute from Darien by train. Still, she primarily praised how well the platform works with tablets.
“A lot of our ebooks, right now, are going to our older patrons, who tend to stick with the one device they know,” she says. Many of these patrons like reading on iPads because it allows them to enlarge an ebook’s text, and “the ease of use of the iPad is so good. For them, [there aren’t] a lot of things that they have to learn or figure out. They can get to the ebooks pretty quickly, and they don’t feel intimidated by the interface.”
Amanda Goodman, user experience librarian for the Darien Library, agrees. “When we do one-on-one sessions with patrons, they definitely preferred using the 3M Cloud Library,” she says.
The typical library will pay $5000 or less in one-year renewable contracts, with a first-year ebook commitment that varies for the 3M platform. Mercer acknowledged that most systems using the 3M platform have also continued their existing relationships with other ebook providers, such as OverDrive.
Beta testers also say that the Cloud Library’s Discovery Terminals—stand-alone touchscreen units that can be used to browse a library’s 3M ebook collection—have been a big hit with patrons. For example, the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL), NY, has placed a Discovery Terminal in a prominent location near the entrance of one branch.
“Almost everybody who walks in stops, looks, thinks about it, pulls out their device, and more times than not—this is the remarkable thing—they don’t necessarily need to talk to a library staff member to figure out how to make it work,” says FFL executive director Susan Considine. “They’re able to do it on their own. [3M] is doing something right.”
Sarian at GPL says that the Discovery Terminal has also helped promote the availability of ebooks at his library.
“People are drawn to it,” he says. “When they walk into the library, they see it. It looks technologically advanced and it’s touchscreen, it’s tactile,” which encourages interaction.
This is the experience 3M was aiming for with these terminals, Mercer says. “It’s a tangible thing, and libraries are still about tangible [objects]. Having a physical presence for ebooks in the library and giving them a space draws attention, and it drives awareness and drives users.”
Sarian adds that he was also impressed with the consistency of the user experience across devices.
“That same interface that they see on the Discovery Terminal is also available on the PC application, which is also available if you download the app. What you see in all of those settings is identical. The user experience is the same, and that’s huge to me.”
OverDrive has been testing new discovery centers, called Media Stations. The interface can be displayed on existing library workstations, or on prominent touchscreen monitors that raise the profile of ebooks and simplify downloading within the library, via “OverDrive Read,” the company’s new browswer-based ebook platform. Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 also showcases the digital library collection on a Magic Wall, which makes it easy for patrons to check out the titles.
While interface improvements are welcome, another long-term librarian complaint with OverDrive remains: patrons must navigate away from a library’s integrated library system (ILS) to download an ebook. OverDrive recently released a series of long-awaited application programming interfaces (APIs) to allow libraries to integrate their services with an ILS in an effort to address this issue.
“We just opened up our Developers Portal in July, and have received much interest and applications from libraries, ILS vendors and others,” David Burleigh, director of marketing for OverDrive, told LJ in an e-mail. “We expect some creative applications for deeper integration with libraries and their OverDrive collection.”
But Mercer says that the Cloud Library platform was designed from the start to connect with services offered by other library providers. “We want our system to be a way to connect with our community,” he says. “We don’t want it to be a separate service; we want it to integrate with other services.”
Their APIs are designed to allow ILS systems to “tightly integrate” a library’s 3M ebook holdings into the catalog, Mercer says.
“You’re in the catalog, you’re looking for a book, you click a button, the book is checked out and waiting for you. We think our APIs are really going to set the bar not just for discovering ebooks in the collection but also for completing that transaction.”
In March, 3M accomplished the most significant integration to date when it created a unified interface with the Polaris ILS. Not only can patrons of participating libraries browse and check out both physical books and ebooks from the unified interface, the system also enables unified account profiles, in which users will be able to view status updates or receive notifications for all of their materials, both physical and digital. For librarians, statistics on 3M ebooks will be collected in real time and included in circulation reports.
This will all certainly appeal to both librarians and users. But Platt at NYPL offered a circumspect assessment of other back-end aspects of the platform.
“The tools that our collection development librarians need to discover titles and order titles and manage their collections and get reports, etc.—a lot of that still needs to be developed,” says Platt. “3M hiring Heather [McCormack] away from [LJ] is an example of it making a concerted effort in that direction.”
Mercer acknowledges that developing and improving those tools had been a point of focus and that they have been making adjustments based on feedback from libraries.
“Until this year, [3M] had never sold an ebook, or a book of any kind, really,” Mercer notes. “So we really have learned a lot on the back end. We’ve signed up a ton of publishers. We have great content. But we’re learning how to help librarians find that content, sort through that content, and make those collection development decisions.”
One of the strengths of the system going forward, Mercer contends, is that it has been designed to accommodate multiple different business models proposed by publishers, integrated in a way that’s “both seamless to the end user and easy for librarians to manage.”
Bringing one of the Big Six publishers back to the negotiating table certainly indicates that 3M is off to a good start.
“It’s very much a new platform,” says Platt. “The expectation that we bring to them is that they are new, and that they have a long way to go. But, for better or worse, OverDrive has already plowed a lot of that field and demonstrated what works and what doesn’t work. Everyone who comes along after OverDrive will be able to benefit from that knowledge. Hopefully, the development that 3M takes forward will be robust and quick.”