November 26, 2022

ReadersFirst, Vendors Search for a New Lending Model


On a late rainy Monday afternoon at the end of the American Library Association’s Midwinter meeting, 39 leading librarians and library vendors gathered for about 90 minutes around a horseshoe-arrangement of tables on the fourth floor of the Seattle Public Library to discuss how to create a new lending experience.

The group came together at the behest of the ReadersFirst Initiative, a coalition of librarians that formed last June and comprises more than 220 library systems around the world, with the goal of remaking the disjointed state of library e-lending. The group’s “content access requirements” were the point of departure for Monday’s roundtable (which was not a part of the ALA conference).

Christina de Castell, the director for resources and technology at the Vancouver Public Library and a member of the coalition’s leadership group, laid out for the distributors and ILS vendors in attendance the prime, and by now very familiar, motivations animating the initiative.

“It’s a really complicated situation that patrons are struggling with,” de Castell said. “What we want to accomplish with ReadersFirst is to identify a new approach to lending.”

de Castell said libraries want to discover all their content, print and digital, through a single catalog, which is far from the present state of affairs where libraries are leasing content from multiple vendors and their patrons often are obliged to jump interfaces and endure multiple authentications in order to access the content.

“We’re in a situation now as libraries where we would have to provide a different discovery system depending on where we bought the content from, and that’s just not going to work in the long term,” de Castell said. “It’s getting too complex and ebooks are growing so fast. It’s an urgent problem.”

de Castell moderated the discussion along with Jim Loter, the information technology director for Seattle Public Library, who said the goal was interoperability and not tying libraries to a vertical stack of functionalities that cover the lending operation from end to end.

“We are looking for the tools to create true unbundling and interoperability among the different functions that reside all up and down the stack of the lending model that exists today bundled into many products,” Loter said. “What you’re hearing today is from a large representation of the library community that says ‘yes provide the bundled product but provide options for us to hit that product where we need that functionality and leave it alone where we don’t.’ “

While endorsing the ReadersFIrst initiative “110 percent,” Steve Potash, the CEO of OverDrive offered some cautionary words as well.

Potash said the vertical stack of functionalities–terms and conditions, items and holdings data, circulation and lending, patron accounts, notifications, econtent format, administrative reporting—could be separated into discrete parts.

“But we also should be mindful that if we break all of these into all these multiple islands and you can pick and choose, what happens when a customer gets the wrong format? Who owns it?” he said.

Potash was referring to a situation, for example, where a patron accidentally checks out a book for the Kindle when they really wanted the Nook format, but now the library has been likely charged for a checkout under some models that have a loan cap, such as the recently launched model from Macmillan (52 checkouts or two years, whichever comes first). Fixing that situation is not simple. Owning the “last mile deliverable” is filled with such complexities, Potash said.

“ …I’ve heard about ease of use, one place to discover everything and that’s great. But how do we know if we are doing well and at what cost?”

Potash saw  a hybrid situation that did not completely align with the unbundling of functionalities that Loter and de Castell described.

“I think there will be a combination of giving you these open APIs and access to flexibility to build your solutions, but at  least for the next few years from what we’re seeing, not only here but overseas, some of these end-to-end solutions will deliver the sucess for your customer, success you can measure by converting new patrons,” Potash said.

OverDrive recently released four open APIs through its developer portal, which Potash said addressed the discovery issues. The Marmot Library Network in Colorado, for example, has leveraged the APIs to make its OverDrive collection discoverable via its VuFind catalog.

However, Tom Galante, the director and CEO of Queens Library, objected to OverDrive’s relationship with Amazon. OverDrive is the only vendor that offers Kindle compatibility, a big selling point for the service and one that is popular with library patrons, but it involves handing the transaction off to Amazon.

“I don’t think that’s good for our readership. I think it’s good for Amazon’s commercial interests but I don’t think it’s good for us,” Galante said. “And that’s one reason why we are looking at so many other options because Amazon I don’t view as a friend. I view them as someone who is looking to sell lawn mowers at the expense of knocking our publishing industry down. … I don’t think they have readers in mind.”

Galante also said he is limiting his library’s expenditures on ebooks because the present lending system is so fractured and cumbersome.

“We’re limiting our expenses to about $300,000 a year, and it should probably be $3 million a year right now,” Galante said. “To go in deep, I feel like I’m throwing away my money right now.”

Galante was building off a remark made by Matt Tempelis, 3M’s Cloud Library Global Business Manager, who had said that In addition to setting priorities and identifying best practices that may already be in place, libraries should “vote with their wallets.”

“To get action, talking about it is great, getting clarity is great, but if there are folks out there that are doing it well then you are going to get others to follow if you vote with your wallet,” he said.

Among vendors, 3M, in partnership with Polaris, has come close to achieving the type of ILS integration ReadersFirst is advocating, although SirsiDynix recently announced a number of integrations with its eResource Central product that may be moving in the same direction. In addition, Toronoto-based Bibliocommons, which provides a discovery layer (BiblioCore catalog) that sits on top of the OPAC module of many ILS products, has received high grades from major library systems, such as Boston, Seattle, and NYPL (which has a financial stake in the company). The company announced this weekend that it had struck a three-year deal with Chicago Public Library as well.

Potash, along with other vendors, encouraged the ReadersFirst group to list its highest priorities and adopt an agile development methodology.

“Pick a small problem and solve it and then move onto the next one,” said Andrew Pace, the executive director for networked library services at OCLC.

“Many of you know that agile development is the way you get things done fast,” Potash said. “ So I will make this offer, any individual library customer who wants to go fast, just call me,” he said. “Single sign on? Let’s get there; let’s just get it done.”

If the only result of the meeting were that everybody went back and focused on some way to simplify authentication and make it more integrated into the client side, then that, along with APIs for discovery, would be a tremendous help, according to Jamie Larue, the director of the Douglas County Libraries.

“Right now we’re arranging a grocery store where each aisle is a different vendor. It’s hard to shop,” Larue said. “So we’re just trying to get some consistency for these key things.”

But George Coe, the president of Baker & Taylor Library & Education, reminded the panelists that being different has its value.

“This industry is supported by profitability that drives the marketplace and does everything that we have. We’re intermediaries in a lot of ways for those people who have copyrighted content and have trusted us to sell that content,” Coe said.

“So there is a challenge that what differentiates the marketplace grows the marketplace; so a common experience  sometimes levels the playing field but it hurts your development going forward,” Coe said.

ReadersFirst, ultimately, has a larger, single, common motivation.

“This is beyond the 20th-century motivation of just linking to ebooks from the catalog or providing a single authentication system or directing patrons to a platform branded with the library’s logo,” said Christopher Platt, the director of collections and circulation operations at New York Public Library who participated through a conference call. “This is the 21st-century desire to create a rich, seamless patron experience that the library can coordinate so that we can provide each of our patrons management over their own access to, and interaction with, all of the library’s collections and programs and services. The common motivation that we have is to put the reader first.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. I have been involved in ReadersFirst and was at the meeting. I would like to suggest to Mr. Coe that traditionally B & T and other vendors have differentiated themselves to libraries but not to end users; books, DVDs, etc. don’t have B & T stickers on them. I would urge B & T and all other vendors to differentiate themselves not by constructing silos for access but by being vendors who play well with others and make it easy as possible to provide the patron a seamless experience. Libraries and patrons will definitely be appreciative. Overall, I thought it was a constructive meeting; the providers had some good suggestions for ReadersFirst to enhance the clarity of its document and quest, and ReadersFirst had some powerful advocates articulate concerns.

    • Mr. Shurman mentions an annoying problem of long-standing. I’ve yet to meet a patron who cares if it’s Overdrive, B&T, EBSCO, anything. They want the end product, which they’ve paid for through their libraries. However, to get it, they’ve had to go through multiple doors on which are displayed corporate logos. Vendors that remove those doors and and let patrons click directly to the content or download option from their library catalog will get a lot of library business. They don’t have to be anonymous. The content or download page can display the corporate info.