December 10, 2023

Jim Schmidt on Raising the Service Bar, Non-traditional Partnerships, and Other Changes Driven by the Digital Shift

Jim SchmidtOn October 1, Library Journal and School Library Journal will host their fifth annual virtual conference, “The Digital Shift: Libraries @ The Center.

RBdigital is a Gold Sponsor of the conference, and LJ reached out to Jim Schmidt, RBdigital’s Vice President of Sales & Marketing, to participate in this series of interviews addressing libraries’ central role in the transformation of our culture from analog experiences to digital experiences.

LJ: How do you see the digital shift enabling collaborations and how are these new kinds of partnerships changing the library user experience?

JS: The digital shift has given librarians the ability to offer sophisticated educational and entertainment related services to their patrons and remotely reach a growing population of patrons who are looking to use these services in the context of their busy lifestyles. The service bar has been set higher by the open access of the Internet. Smart technology partnerships will help librarians meet that growing expectation of their patrons now and in the future.

Now that the digital shift and mobile and tablet use are converging to create an expectation of accessing library materials everywhere, how is the library world rising to that challenge, how must we modify user experience to cross screens successfully, and how do we best serve those still struggling with the digital divide?

While is it easy to get swept up in reports of digital success stories, I think we all recognize that the library still serves an important role in distributing physical products, and sometimes equally importantly, in providing a safe environment for social interaction. The most successful libraries appear to be those who recognize the possibilities of a digital future while retaining the value of a traditional past (and monitoring that tradition for ongoing relevance). Products like our Zinio for Libraries (digital magazines) and OneClickdigital (ebooks/eAudio) have proven a great bridging platform to allow libraries to introduce a new format for an existing product along with the metrics to measure how the new format is received. The challenge now is for libraries to identify services that patrons may not even be asking for yet thereby proving the library’s value to the community.

How do libraries best support key community needs such as workforce development, enabling better healthcare and education outcomes, and how can they work with corporate or institutional partners to advocate for these roles more effectively?

Some of our favorite success stories come from “non-traditional” partnerships that the library has forged with the local community to fund specific areas of interest. Universal Class, our online continuing education program, has found great success in smaller libraries, particularly in areas where a large corporate presence is closing its doors. In some cases, these companies actually help fund these kinds of career training/retraining services, and the library needs only the wherewithal to ask. It is not uncommon for libraries to find “sponsors” with local communities to fund specific needs within the library—how many times do you see stickers on magazines that list a business which helped fund it? Libraries can take those traditional sources of revenue and modify them to work within a digital environment.

In view of concerns about too much screen time for children, what role can and should digital play in early learning?

As in many other areas, quality will always be more important than quantity. It has never been a practical requirement of the library community to control the amount of time any child does anything. Parental involvement and beliefs will always trump any institutional approach. But what a library can control is what a child has access to while within its area of influence. It is often easy to forget that we learn best when we are having fun. If children have a desire to interact with electronic media, the library is in a great position to provide a safe and structured environment for the “right” kind of learning.

When this event began, whether ebooks even had a future in libraries was far from clear. Now that all of the Big Five offer ebooks to public libraries, what is the next step? Will acquisition models diversify for public libraries as they have in the academic market? How will rising ebook prices in academia change collection development? How will the school market evolve?

Acquisition and pricing models for ebooks will be influenced, as always, by the needs of publishers, library funding and by how patrons want to use the product. The challenge facing libraries today is how to maintain a print collection (a majority of patrons still want to hold paper) while growing a digital collection using roughly the same amount of money. As a consequence, we are seeing a wide variety of models being offered by both publishers and technology partners. Unlimited access for a flat fee, fixed limits on circulations, pay per checkout and pay per use are all models that are currently being used in libraries. All of these models are trying to strike a balance between publisher business needs, library budgetary constraints, growing patron demand and mobile lifestyles. Time and experience will tell if one model will rise to the top or if we will live in a world of many flavors.