Library ebook transactions remain too lengthy and complicated for patrons, especially in comparison with consumer ebook transactions, James English, product manager for the Library Simplified project at the New York Public Library (NYPL) said during his “EPUB: Walled Gardens and the Readium Foundation” presentation at the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) Book Industry Study Group (BISG) Eighth Annual Forum, held June 27 in conjunction with the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Annual Conference.
“Believe it or not, but to get an ebook from NYPL takes about 19 steps,” English said. “When you think about a Kindle book…it’s probably two clicks at the most.”
Launched in December 2013 with a $500,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Library Simplified is a two-year project by a coalition of ten libraries led by NYPL that aims to make ebooks and other digital content easier for patrons to access.
One specific goal of Library Simplified, English explained, is to reduce the number of clicks needed to access a library ebook to three or fewer. One click to discover, one click to check out or download, and one click to read an ebook, he said. In order to do this, the group has aligned its efforts with Readium, an independent non-profit focused on accelerating the publishing industry’s adoption of the International Digital Publishing Forum’s (IDPF) open EPUB 3 standard.
Building on the groundwork laid by Readium made sense. In March 2013, Readium announced the Readium SDK (software development kit) project. Seeded with a substantial donation of code from the Kobo e-reader, the Readium SDK project’s goal is to develop an open-source EPUB 3 rendering engine optimized for use with apps on tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices.
With Readium SDK, Library Simplified is building a commercial-grade, open ebook reading platform for libraries, and “wrangling the different back-end systems and content repositories—OverDrive, 3M [Cloud Library], Axis 360 from Baker & Taylor—as our acquisitions modules,” English said. Once developed, the open-source platform will enable library patrons to borrow ebooks seamlessly from multiple distributors using a single app or interface.
It is important for libraries to embrace open standards such as EPUB 3, and more generally, for the field to be active in discussions regarding international technology standards, English said. Specialized ereader platforms—most notably the Amazon Kindle—facilitate commercial “lock in,” with customers continuing to use the platform, in part, because it would be difficult or impossible to transfer prior purchases to a competitor’s product. By contrast, open standards such as EPUB 3 facilitate competition, lower barriers to entry for device manufacturers, software developers, and content providers, and lower the costs that consumers pay for switching devices or providers.
“Strategically, I think there is an opportunity to engage the publishing industry at a different level,” he said. “We talk about platform providers and we ask them to deliver services to us. But these guys also build all of these technology standards that are out there. These standards organizations need this industry to overcome some of those technological barriers that are really just there by necessity, evolution, or commercial interest.”
Finding ways to make ebook access as simple as possible is vital for libraries, English contended. Frustrating experiences can push patrons away and can have a lasting impact on their perception of library ebooks.
“We want to increase readership by removing these barriers,” he said. “Many times, when I talk to people about this project, I ask them ‘do you borrow ebooks from the library?’ And they say ‘no, but I tried, and then I went to Amazon and just bought it.’”
And libraries are facing new competitors in the form of ebook subscription services, such as Scribd and Oyster. English said he doesn’t believe that the threat from these services is as dire as some believe, since their business models currently depend on subscribers reading 12 or fewer ebooks per year—a slow pace for most regular library users. But, with yet another commercial service offering a sleek and easy-to-use ebook interface, libraries must enhance how their patrons access ebooks.
“For Internet users who read ebooks, online bookstores are the first stop,” English told LJ in December, citing Pew Internet and American Life Project research. “Asked where they start their search for an ebook that they wanted, 75 percent of ebook readers start at an online bookstore or website. Only 12 percent start at the library…. That stuck with me and that’s something I’d like to see that turned on its head—I’d like to see 75 percent of ebook readers start at their local library.”