November 20, 2017

MA State Ebook Pilot Offers Insights

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Massachusetts Library SystemThe Massachusetts State Ebook Project (MA EBook Project), conceived by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioner’s (MBLC) Statewide Resource Sharing Committee and the Massachusetts Library System (MLS), with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), this summer concluded a pilot program, offering many insights into the challenges and promises that statewide consortial ebook lending programs may offer.

The pilot involved a comprehensive approach to ebook lending. Beginning in November 2013, Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 platform offered about 3,000 popular fiction and general interest ebooks under a standard one-ebook, one-user, two-week lending model, and BiblioLabs offered more than 25,000 public domain ebooks, library special collections, and other content with an unlimited simultaneous use model. EBL, a division of ProQuest, joined the pilot in February 2014, offering a short term loan model, with patrons able to access 135,500 academic and professional ebook titles for seven-day checkout periods. Content from all three platforms was maintained by MLS and hosted by Bywater Solutions at a single site: ebooks.masslibsystem.org.

“We were trying to look at three different models,” explained MLS advisor Deb Hoadley. “We intentionally decided at the very beginning that we weren’t going to have our own server and try to worry about our own technology. Biblioboard had the platform that we needed for uploading our own content as well as the visually appealing way that they were displaying mostly public domain [ebooks]…. Baker & Taylor met that content need of bestsellers and popular fiction for all ages, and then EBL [provided] the short term loan model.”

Forty-nine libraries participated, including 10 academic, 28 public, eight school, and three special libraries.

New Promos, Old Challenges

To prepare participating libraries for the pilot, MLS put together a public relations, promotion, and training taskforce that generated a launch kit with a step-by-step manual, postcards and other promotional materials, instructional webinars for library staff, on-site training sessions with vendors, and an internal blog and listserv to post project updates and answer questions.

The results of a post-pilot survey of participating libraries seemed to illustrate different levels of engagement with these training efforts. While more than 97 percent of respondents said that they were aware of the pilot and were aware that their library was a participant, only 65 percent said that their library had used the launch kit and training materials that MLS provided. More than 9 percent responded definitively that their library had not used these materials, and more than 25 percent said that they weren’t sure whether the materials had been used. Almost 18 percent of respondents said that they did not feel sufficiently trained to discuss the ebook project with patrons.

“If the librarians didn’t choose to look at that stuff and become engaged, they weren’t trained,” said Hoadley.

Librarian respondents who were, at some point, unable to help a patron find and download something they wanted wrote in several comments. One wrote that problems included “a combination of technical issues, [patrons’] own unfamiliarity with their device, and then the book just not being available.” Another noted that Kindles continue to be popular with patrons, and “even knowing workarounds, it was very difficult to articulate to patrons with limited technological skills how to utilize these platforms with a Kindle.”

Another librarian commenter noted that “patrons get very frustrated by having to access ebooks…across different platforms,” and that their patrons regularly make unfavorable comparisons between library ebook borrowing and the ease of buying and downloading ebooks from Amazon.com.

Patron Feedback

The separate patron survey confirmed these views, and included written complaints about difficulties logging on to different platforms, complaints that too many books were unavailable for checkout, and complaints about problems with Kindles (the preferred platform for 20 percent of respondents, compared with 35 percent iPad users, 17 percent  Nook users, 13 percent computer/laptop users, about 9 percent  “other” tablet users, and 6.5 percent smartphone users).

However, almost 90 percent of those respondents still said that they were ultimately able to find and download an ebook that they were interested in or that met their needs, and almost 72 percent said that the overall experience had met their expectations. Several written comments indicated that satisfaction likely increased once users received help at the library or figured out how to use the platforms on their own.

This is an encouraging sign as the project moves forward. Although circulation spiked in December 2013 and January 2014 and then fell sharply in February—presumably due to patrons trying out new tablets and e-readers that were received as Christmas gifts—usage of all three platforms then grew steadily through May.

Platform Performance

Each platform presents inherent strengths and weaknesses, the pilot found. Axis 360 is the only platform of the three that offers content from Big Five publishers. This is important, since when asked what type of content they would like to see more of in a statewide ebook collection, “bestselling, popular fiction” was the top choice of both staff and patrons by significant margins, followed by “mysteries” in both surveys.

“We have been successful on behalf of the Mass project in talking with our publisher partners and gaining participation,” Michael Bills, Baker & Taylor’s director of sales, digital products, told LJ. “There [was a] limited budget during the pilot period, as you would expect. But as the program rolls forward, I know that the direction that the collection is going to take is to attempt to match content availability with those survey results.”

However, in the patron survey, several respondents complained that the two-week lending period was too short, that the ebook they wanted was unavailable, or that they had difficulty with the Adobe ID signup and authorizing process—in other words, unavoidable issues with popular fiction ebooks, which will require ongoing educational efforts to resolve.

Biblioboard does not offer Big Five titles, but its tablet-friendly, seamless app interface and unlimited simultaneous use model drew praise from patron respondents. It also consistently posted the highest circulation of the three platforms, peaking at almost 1,500 downloads during December 2013. Biblioboard has partnered with a growing list of small presses and independent publishers, offers an attractive interface for presenting classics and public domain works, and, as Hoadley noted, the platform will enable libraries to upload and showcase their own content, such as ebooks by local authors, or curated special collections.

“The idea of a ‘checkout’ is a bit of an anathema for us,” said Mitchell Davis, chief business officer of BiblioLabs. With Biblioboard, patrons “are in an app, and you are looking at [content] in that app for as long as you want. You can download content to your offline bookshelf if you’re hopping on a plane or whatever, but other than that, it’s always there. It’s just part of the app experience.”

Biblioboard and Library Journal have partnered on SELF-e, a new project that aims to help libraries review and curate self-published ebook titles.

EBL offered the best selection of titles for academic libraries, although some patrons complained that they had trouble finding downloaded ebooks on their devices.

Forging Ahead

While MLS, MBLC, and IMLS absorbed the cost of the pilot and plan to continue subsidizing platform fees, libraries interested in participating in any ebook sharing partnership that emerges from this project will eventually have to pay for access. These costs would be affordable but not insignificant, ranging from $250 annually for the smallest public libraries, up to $40,000 for major urban systems, according to a funding model proposed after the pilot evaluation. Sliding scales for pricing are based on materials budgets for academic libraries, population served for public libraries, and student FTE for school libraries.

Hoadley predicts that participants will become more invested in the project’s collective success once it becomes a paid resource.

“Those libraries going forward, that are paying to participate, are going to make sure that whatever they’re paying for is going to have value, or they’re not going to continue it,” she said.

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.