Back in the late 1980s, I was taught by a former library school dean named Ed Miller. He came from Phoenix to Tucson, home of the University of Arizona’s library school. I learned quite a bit from him, but there was one thing that he drilled into his students’ heads: “If you get nothing else from these classes, remember that librarians are the bridge between people and the information they need.” In the ensuing years, I had a pretty good career, but I was always looking for examples of quality bridge-building.
A few weeks ago, my wife told me, “You have to see this new feature they put on my library’s webpage.” Sure enough, what I saw brought my library school days back to life. It was a feature named Wowbrary. When you click on a rolling slideshow of book covers, you are transferred to a page that displays 20 titles that are new to the library, with book jackets and textual information. To the left, there is a subject breakdown of all new titles added in the last week. You can return to that spot a week later or, better yet, sign up for a weekly email. To do so, you do not have to prove that you have a library card. You just have to tell them where to send the file. Each email I’ve seen so far contains at least one or two titles that I’d like to read.
After choosing a title, you can take advantage of an interface within the library catalog to reserve the item. At that point, you input your barcode number (or other proof) to show that you are an active patron. Since you can add any number of libraries, I also signed up for postings from the New York Public Library, where I have an account.
Wowbrary at East Meadow
I arranged for a meeting with Rocco Cassano, the assistant director of East Meadow Public Library in New York (on whose site we had seen Wowbrary). He has been a leading light in automation at the library for years, and he was instrumental in getting Wowbrary. When I asked him how this service came about, he told me that the Nassau Library System had acquired it in 2018 and allowed its individual libraries to opt in if they wanted. At that time, East Meadow was beginning a transitional era—its half-century-old building was being completely remodeled, so it did not choose Wowbrary initially. In 2021, a patron asked the administration why the library didn’t have it. Since East Meadow had just reopened at that time, it seemed like a good bet to shine a light on its new holdings.
After signing up, East Meadow hired a local web designer to integrate the new product into its main page. The library got to customize aspects such as the display size of book covers and the overall color scheme. One more inducement was the price after the consortial discount. A librarian at East Meadow who buys electronic materials for the library said, “We pay that much for three or four audiobooks.”
Wowbrary Is Born
Wowbrary is a project of Interactive Sciences, Inc., an enterprise that describes itself as a “non-profit public benefit corporation, sharing with everyone the power of computers.” It came out of Palo Alto, Calif., 40 years ago, and much of its work is centered in the Silicon Valley area, including peer tutoring for computer users and adding technology resources to underserved communities such as Native American tribes. It has also developed a project to teach students in middle school (and higher grades) how to program in Java.
Interactive Sciences’ president and co-founder, Jeff Levinsky, came up with the idea for Wowbrary when he was president of the Friends of the Palo Alto Library. A friend of his complained that he had gone to the library and scanned the new book shelf to find something to read, but the shelf looked picked-over and uninteresting. Levinsky figured out the nature of the problem: The best and most interesting new books are already checked out by the time most people see the shelf. If his friend had looked in the catalog, he would have seen all of the latest novels and bombshell titles, but he would have to look for them specifically, one at a time. The solution was to create a program that highlights the newest acquisitions and puts them front and center. Since he had an IT background, Levinsky worked out a program that did exactly that.
Interviewing the Program’s Creator
I contacted Levinsky, and he was happy to set up a phone interview. He is understandably very pleased with the reception of his creation. As of today, there are more than 700 libraries on board with Wowbrary. As mentioned previously, part of this success is due to its affordability. Levinsky said that a typical public library in a consortium would pay about $375 per year for the service, close to the figure that Cassano had given me for East Meadow. I was surprised to learn that Wowbrary’s revenue did not spill into other parts of the organization, but raised just enough to keep it more or less self-sustaining.
The Nassau Library System uses Innovative for its ILS. I asked Levinsky if Wowbrary works with most other ILSs. He said that the company has made it work with a number of systems, including SirsiDynix and Koha. “In fact, I have not encountered an ILS that wouldn’t work with Wowbrary,” he said. He collaborates with libraries to keep track of migrations between systems.
When I mentioned to Levinsky that Wowbrary seems to do for books what Libby does for ebooks and audiobooks, he said that the program can be set to include electronic media as well. In fact, Wowbrary has a relationship with OverDrive. After the pandemic hit, Levinsky quickly realized that electronic media had to become a more important part of any library’s offerings, so Interactive Sciences adapted to the new reality. He pointed out that Wowbrary was particularly useful in showing off the substantial collection of online magazines distributed by OverDrive.
I asked about Levinsky’s overall role in the company, and he said that he is involved in all aspects of Interactive Sciences and that there is a staff that primarily works on Wowbrary. Wowbrary’s webpage states that the selection of books in the top 20 list is automated to prevent any kind of bias in the selection. Levinsky said, however, that some editorial control has to happen during the weekly postings.
In writing about library automation over the years, I have seen a lot of products and services that were useful and impressive. In this case, I find the work of Interactive Sciences and Wowbrary to be inspiring. The whole effort is designed to allow library patrons to make better use of their libraries, and I am sure that my library school professor would raise a glass to that.
Examples of Wowbrary in action at East Meadow Public Library