ReadersFirst, a coalition of almost 300 library systems, has been working to improve public library patrons’ access to ebooks for more than a year. The first fruit of its labors, “ReadersFirst Guide to Library E-Book Vendors,” is now available for free online. This report provides libraries with best practices for ebook distribution and an overview of seven ebook vendors’ strengths and weaknesses so they can make informed decisions about which vendor to choose.
The guide is part of ReadersFirst’s mission to help libraries shape their own e-lending practices. According to the ReadersFirst website, “Libraries have a responsibility to fight for the public and ensure that users have the same open, easy and free access to e-books that they have come to rely on with physical books.” The site describes the two main challenges libraries face: Publishers are sometimes reluctant to sell ebooks to libraries and ebook distributors do not always provide a positive user experience.
ReadersFirst began in June 2012 when several library systems gathered to discuss problems they were having with the OPAC integration of their ebook collections, says Michael Santangelo, electronic resources coordinator for BookOps, the shared technical services organization for the Brooklyn Public Library and the New York Public Library. “I think when they were having some difficulties working between different companies, it dawned on them that what they needed were standard practices that everyone involved could use,” he says. ReadersFirst members began reaching out to other library systems, and soon the coalition grew to 292 member library systems across the U.S. and Canada.
Santangelo sees ReadersFirst’s responsibility as similar to that of COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resources): to create industrywide standard practices for libraries, ILS vendors, discovery layer vendors, and ebook distributors. By having consistency across all aspects of ebook usage in libraries, each party will know what to expect and know the protocols for ebook lending.
A working group of volunteers from member library systems drafted the ReadersFirst Content Access Requirements, a set of technical requirements they felt every ebook distributor, platform, and system should follow. At the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in 2013, ReadersFirst held a vendor roundtable session to discuss the requirements. “They were very cooperative and very happy to see all the things that we thought were necessary for [a] healthy, user-friendly ebook distribution system,” according to Santangelo. Several ebook distributors filled out an evaluation form based on the four principles ReadersFirst endorses for all ebook lending practices:
- Search and browse a single comprehensive catalog with all of a library’s offerings at once, including all e-books, physical collections, programs, blogs, and donor opportunities. Currently, content providers often only allow searches within the products they sell, depriving users of the comprehensive library experience.
- Place holds, check-out items, view availability, manage fines and receive communications within individual library catalogs or in the venue the library believes will serve them best, without having to visit separate websites (libraries, not distributers, should be enabled to manage all interactions with users).
- Seamlessly enjoy a variety of e-content. To do this, libraries must be able to choose content, devices and apps from any provider or from multiple providers, without bundling that limits a library’s ability to serve content they purchase on platforms of their choice.
- Download e-books that are compatible with all readers, from the Kindle to the Nook to the iPad and so on.
ReadersFirst formed a content subgroup of the working group to score the responses on a scale of 1 to 100 based on how well the vendors adhered to these principles. ReadersFirst “had some follow-up conversations” with vendors, says Santangelo. “[T]hat’s when we decided that we needed to put together a guide, and only part of the mission of that guide obviously is to assess the vendors. The other part of the guide was to share the ideas we had about these content access requirements with our colleagues … across the country.”
The guide evaluates seven ebook distributors (Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360; EBSCO eBooks and Audiobooks; Gale Virtual Reference Library; Ingram Content Group, Inc.’s MyiLibrary; OverDrive; ProQuest’s ebrary; and 3M Cloud Library) based on seven criteria (general terms and conditions, item metadata, circulation transactions, patron account information, patron notifications, econtent format, and administrative reporting and support). “It’s not about telling you [that] you shouldn’t go with [a certain] vendor” because its score is low in any area, says Santangelo. “It’s just that when you do make that decision [of which vendor to work with], you make an educated decision about it.”
The rest of the guide serves as a tool to educate colleagues about the state of ebook lending in libraries by offering a glossary, user stories submitted by ReadersFirst members, and an in-depth discussion of the four ReadersFirst principles. “[I]t really helps librarians out there … have a conversation with a vendor about what’s wrong, or what we think needs to be developed further,” says Santangelo.
ReadersFirst content subgroup members completed the first draft of the guide in September 2013, which is when Santangelo joined as project coordinator. “When I was coordinating putting the publication together,” he says, “I pushed the group to hold off for a bit because a few of our vendors were coming out with some major APIs. And I felt out of fairness to everyone and to really give us the relevance that we wanted, we should really hold off. I think we’re fairly up-to-date with many of the major developments.”
The working group continues to have conference calls every 2 weeks to review its progress, and then it presents its notes to the general ReadersFirst membership group every other month. “And we also have other speakers that come and talk about local ebook advocacy efforts or new systems out there that librarians are creating,” says Santangelo.
Santangelo says the major accomplishment of the guide so far is the dialogue it has opened up between librarians and ebook vendors, librarians and patrons, librarians and publishers, and publishers and vendors. “[I]t’s given me a framework to have a discussion about these issues, whether it’s with a vendor, or with my colleagues here, my colleagues around the country, members of the public if they ask, public officials, whether it’s speaking with publishers,” he says.
Librarians have similar problems when it comes to getting ebooks for their patrons, “and for each of us to try to work on them separately is inefficient and when we all come together we share information; we come together as a united front.” Santangelo also believes librarians share the same goals. “I’m very optimistic that we can get to a place where we have these healthy, functioning ebook platforms where our patrons, regardless of their technical abilities, can go in, find ebooks they like, download them onto their device, and come back and check out more.”