Simplify, Unify, Diversify: an Interview with Jessica Want, New York Public Library
16 July 2019
Alongside growing concern in the United States and Canada about the conditions imposed on libraries looking to lend eBooks, there are also efforts to reduce dependency on third party distributors by building 'library-controlled' platforms.
This, the hope is, will offer a better service both for readers and libraries. We interviewed Jessica Want, Director, Digital Products at New York Public Library, to find out more:
1. How significant is demand for eBooks in libraries in the US?
From a cross-reference of Nielsen, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly PubTrack Digital, the ebook market in the US was over 250 million units per year as of the beginning of 2018.
There is, however, a lack of clarity on the precise number for two reasons. Firstly, statistics on independent publishers, aggregators, and self-publishing authors aren't gathered with specificity by any tracking service, and the major retailers do not provide public data on their ebook sales.
Secondly, while there are a lot of data indicating "ebook numbers are down,” the "downloaded audio" segment is rising dramatically (35% by one measure), indicating that these two metrics are gauged separately by a number of metrics providers. This shift from visual to audio would also explain why other market analysis models report a decline in the sale of dedicated eReaders – they're not great for audiobook use.
2. What’s wrong with the status quo?
Public libraries are constrained by limited options for licensing. US libraries’ eBook services are often provided by 3rd party, commercial vendors who negotiate with publishers on the libraries' behalf. The business models of these commercial vendors are often not aligned with, and sometimes even in opposition to, the needs of the library. These vendors have also developed proprietary products that reside in our patrons pockets, through their individual apps, where they are capturing the patron’s attention, owning the relationship with the patron (rather than allowing the library to), and collecting the patrons' reading history and other personal data.
The multitude of vendors has also created a very fractured user experience. For each vendor there is a separate app for patrons to use – in the case of NYPL there are more than six. This brings our patrons too close to the messiness of multiple-vendor eBook distribution that we've worked so hard for decades to eliminate. For example, we don't display the print books by publisher or distributor. The proliferation of commercial eReading apps imposes a confusing user experience, where they must learn multiple interfaces, remember multiple logins, agree to the different terms of the services and occasionally switch between specific hardware or additional technology.
Distributors have also restricted libraries’ ability to work together as a unified profession. Libraries are obliged to negotiate separately with each of the vendors and publishers as disjointed individual institutions, rather than collaboratively as a sector.
Commercial vendors and distributors are also primarily concerned with the sales of books, not with the actual reading of them. We have come to discover that, on occasion, our vendors will push books to a patron's device without notifying them – or us – that they’ve received the book. This checks-out the book for the patron, pushes it into their book queue without their notice, and charges the library for another read — all the while without confirmation that the patron; i) still wants the book; ii) will be aware that it has been sent to them; and most importantly, iii) has the opportunity to read it.
Similarly, the current experiences are designed to super-serve our highest-frequency readers. The apps and distribution of eBooks do not allow for the flexibility to shift service options or to develop tactics to engage with lower-frequency readers. All in all, eReading experiences (or any other services provided by purely commercially-motivated 3rd parties, for that matter), that are not designed to fulfill the mission of the library, or that undermine the principles and values of the library, are never going to be optimized to support those patrons who are in greatest need of library services.
3. What will the nationwide platform do?
In short, as a shared nationwide platform, Library Simplified, will unify libraries as a sector to be able to: i) negotiate with vendors and, hopefully, publishers, ii) operate within a simpler, unified eBooks system; iii) re-establish a personal relationship with our own patrons; iv) reclaim ownership of the collections that they have paid for but are very much 'controlled' by the vendors; v) pay attention to those patrons with high or special needs, especially those with reading disabilities; and iv) develop a library-centric ‘eReading Room’, where our patrons can discover the pleasure of reading without constant distractions and 'upselling' or other promotions.
4. What does ‘library controlled’ mean in practice?
Libraries – and, of course, librarians – live and work by a core set of values. In the US, public libraries are institutions that ensure free speech, protect patron privacy, remove barriers to, and promote, equality, ensure universal access to information, work to narrow the digital divide, avoid censorship, and ensure that a broad and diverse range of voices are represented. We may not always appreciate quite how unique these freedoms are to the citizens of the United States of America and might sometimes take them for granted but very few nations today have such safeguards to democracy as are enshrined through these enduring institutions. A library-controlled experience ensures that those values are always the basis of the patron’s experience. Libraries do not see patrons as a commodity but rather actively work against the commercially-motivated values of vendors and other organizations. Patrons of the Library are not ‘customers’.
The library-patron relationship is the underlying goal of the Library Simplified platform. By sharing this platform with other libraries across the whole of the US, this precious relationship will be placed back into the hands of their libraries, allowing them to make programmatic and engagement decisions to best serve all patrons – no longer just those who are of the most interest to 3rd parties.
5. What does each partner bring to the project?
Library Simplified is made up of three components, and thus, three opportunities for partnership.
Firstly, the reading experience: The New York Public Library has created an eReading app, SimplyE, that aggregates eBooks form the various vendors into one interface for patrons to access both eBooks and audiobooks. It has a librarian administration component that puts libraries and librarians in control of which materials are promoted to their patrons.
Secondly, the eBooks: The DPLA Exchange is continuing to develop a ‘public library’ option for purchasing e-materials that is built in consultation, 'With Libraries For Libraries', and is working directly with publishers to develop new sources for diverse and inclusive reading materials. They will work collaboratively with publishers to explore new licensing models, as well as develop a completely free collection, which includes educational, contemporary, and historical books, available to all libraries who adopt SimplyE to integrate into, or augment, their own collections. The collection is also completely free and fully accessible to readers anywhere in the US who install the SimplyE app, even without a Library Card.
Finally, the Systems Integration and Support: For those libraries that cannot implement and maintain the technologies for themselves, there are a small number of not-for-profit specialists (including LYRASIS, AMIGOS and CALIFA), who are there to help onboard and set-up those who are interested in using Library Simplified and SimplyE. These Service Providers also offer very low-cost front-line service support for libraries. They all offer Software License Agreements (SLAs) and contracts that offer technical support for the duration of that contract so that the library has software experts to call, at any time of day, should their patrons experience any issues. In this way the entire platform is not just comprehensive in its program offerings, but in its support of all public libraries as well.
6. What changes do you expect to see in the availability of (non-openly licensed) books?
Libraries are at risk of not having access to front-list or popular titles immediately, or being subjected to prohibitively expensive licenses that will limit the availability of titles (particularly popular titles) to patrons. The opportunity to negotiate as a sector, rather than as individual libraries, and by being able to promote a library-centric perspective, will allow public libraries to speak collectively in order to redefine licensing terms, and be recognized for the way we add, rather than reduce, long-term value to the publishing industries.
7. What difference will readers see?
Patrons will have access to a greater number, and greater range, of books, both those offered for free through the DPLA Exchange, as well as those licensed through commercial vendors. Libraries will be able to negotiate for better terms with publishers so that the cost of each license can be optimized, in particular for front-list books.