This week at the American Library Association Annual Conference, library visionary Steve Coffman will announce the release of a new Web-based application designed to spur appropriate new book donations to cash-strapped libraries. Called 1stReads (http://www.1streads.org), the subscription-based system allows libraries to generate "wish lists" of ISBNs and quantities of books that they would add to their collections if they could afford them. Libraries set donation levels for individual titles, perhaps little more than the trade price offered by their vendors. Donors can then visit the 1stReads site to purchase these books for their libraries at prices substantially below retail. Beta testing of 1stReads will start on July 1, 2005. A second round of beta testing will begin in August 2005.
"As the copies are donated, the inventory decreases until the title is sold out and we pull it from the list," enthused Coffman, who also serves as vice president for product development at LSSI (Library Systems & Services, LLC; http://www.lssi.com). He imagined the Web display: "Harry Potter only $9 … hurry while supplies last. Only 10 copies available at this price."
1stReads forwards the book money and donor information to the member library, which orders and processes the book in its usual way. The library then places the item on hold for the donating patron, who becomes the lucky first reader of the new library book. At the end of the year, 1stReads generates and distributes receipts to all book donors, who may itemize these charitable donations as deductions on their tax returns.
"The purpose of the program is to try to rationalize and improve upon the way people give books to libraries," Coffman stated. "Anybody who's been around libraries knows that people love to give us books." The problem? Most of these donations consist of outdated and shabby books that have no place on modern library shelves. The process of sorting through these donations is usually not cost-effective. So, Coffman and company developed 1stReads "to encourage people to donate books libraries really need, when we need them, and in a way that fits in easily with our normal acquisitions and cataloging processes without creating a lot of extra work for the staff."
In a larger way, Coffman hopes that 1stReads can provide a revenue stream for libraries independent of the vagaries of government budgets. "We started taking a look at increasing and diversifying library funding," he said. "We've been looking for something that would be the equivalent of the NPR ‘pledge drive' for libraries, something that [would take] advantage of our special characteristics to build support for libraries."
Some public libraries have been trying to do that already, adapting the "registry" services of online bookstores as a way to augment their collections. For example, the El Centro Public Library (http://www.cityofelcentro.org/library), located in California's Imperial Valley just above the Mexican border, pleads for donations on its Web site. "The El Centro Public Library is experiencing difficult financial times which has resulted in a very limited book budget," it reads. It offers a link to its Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com) "wish list" for those who may want to help out.
Coffman asserted that his 1stReads program is a much better deal for book donors than anything that could be offered by commercial booksellers. In addition to getting a discounted gift price and a tax deduction, "the customer also pays no sales tax and no shipping either." Plus, he or she gets escorted to the top of the holds queue.
How much will participating libraries pay for 1stReads? "There will be a minimal setup fee or subscription," Coffman said. "The primary purpose is to cover the cost of setting up their site. The cost is not likely to exceed a couple hundred dollars, and maybe less than that for libraries with small book budgets."
"The other way our company will make money is by charging a small percentage on each donation. Since the donor will actually be paying that, there is no cost to the library."
Giovanna Mannino, assistant director of information technologies and collections at the Los Angeles Public Library, found 1stReads to be "well thought out." Still, Mannino warned that there are hidden processing costs associated with the program. "Even the act of creating a wish list, setting book prices, and deciding quantities would incur labor costs. For a system as large and diverse as ours, 1stReads would involve an unsupportable degree of staff time."
Coffman countered that, because the 1stReads program maintains donor records and uses each library's native acquisitions process to buy donated books, staff involvement would be small. "The point of the whole operation is to keep the special handling down to a minimum."
Coffman plans to mount standardized lists of forthcoming fiction and nonfiction on 1stReads so that libraries can easily list the books that they want. Indeed, some libraries are considering uploading most of their acquisitions order on the site as a giving opportunity. "The orders will have already been placed. Now, it's just a question of who will pay for them, the library or a donor?" said Coffman.
Mannino noted that it may be a difficult matter for library systems to vault donors to the front of a hold queue. "The Los Angeles Public Library handles 1.3 million holds every year. I don't know how the queue manipulations that we would have to implement would affect the hold system that we have in place." Additionally, perceived preferential treatment for book donors might cause customer service issues, she pointed out.
Although 1stReads may be impractical for large metropolitan library systems, Mannino conceded that the program may work very well in a smaller system, particularly in an affluent area. "I can see that the program offers lots of benefits for the donor who likes to give books," she said.
Coffman agreed. "They don't have to worry about having yesterday's bestsellers (or whatever) lying around the house gathering dust anymore, because when they're done reading their donations, they just bring them back to the library."
That assumes that the library is located in a community that has a large book-buying populace. For instance, the El Centro Public Library currently has 16 books on its Amazon registry. As of the third week in June, no donations had been offered. As Mannino noted, "Libraries in less affluent areas may not be able to reap much benefit from a donation program like 1stReads."
In spite of her reservations, Mannino found 1stReads to be an intriguing and innovative approach to a donation program. "I'm impressed with the site. They did a really good job with it."
One southern California library will beta test 1stReads starting July 1. Coffman hopes that libraries across the country will sign on to the program by the end of the year. Libraries interested in subscribing to 1stReads should contact Coffman at his LSSI e-mail address (email@example.com).