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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > October 2018

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Vol. 38 No. 8 — October 2018
FEATURE

Using SimplyE for One Stop EBook Access
by Michael Blackwell

Could it be that, for libraries and their patrons, SimplyE is the holy grail of developers, that ‘one app to rule them all’?

[NOTE: This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Computers in Libraries under the title “Improving the Patron Digital Experience with SimplyE.”]

Library Simplified (www.librarysimplified.org), known in its app version as SimplyE, offers great opportunities to enhance the way in which your patrons experience your library digital content. Developed by the New York Public Library (NYPL)—based on ReadersFirst (readersfirst.org) principles—with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the open source app federates content from many digital content providers into one easy-to-use place. It accomplishes the following:

  • Patrons with mobile devices no longer need to visit a variety of different icons. 
  • Patrons no longer need to think of some outside vendor as the source of content. The app foregrounds the library’s brand as content provider.
  • Patron privacy is enhanced, since patrons will need only their library card number to access all content. They do not have to sign up and provide personal information to each content vendor. 

Could it be that, for libraries and their patrons, SimplyE is the holy grail of developers, that “one app to rule them all”?

Read On …

SimplyE relies on state-of-the-art technology, including Readium and EPUB 2 and 3, to provide a great reading experience with many accessibility features. The app offers all important font options, including a dyslexia-friendly one. Above all, SimplyE is, well, simple. 

No DRM or account setup is required. Patrons download the app, find their library, enter their library card number (and, if the library requires it, a PIN), browse a collection that the library can customize—or they search for a title, download it, and read. After the app is set up, patrons can read content with only three taps. The library ebook (and soon, digital audiobook) experience has never been easier.

The SimplyE Tsunami

Considering the app’s promise, it’s well on its way to taking the library world by storm. Many library consortia and some individual libraries are exploring deployment, following quickly on the heels of its initial adopters, the NYPL and Brooklyn Public Library. Since SimplyE is built on an open source platform, an active user community is also helping it gain momentum. Many entities have joined the Library Simplified community in order to contribute resources and code. 

Minitex (a consortium of more than 200 academic, public, government, and special libraries) has received an IMLS grant to develop an academic library version. By October 2018, PDF compatibility and the ability to create citations will be available, as will compatibility with some academic publishers. Other important features will follow. The European Digital Reading Lab (EDRLab) is providing expertise in rendering ebooks. 

Other developments to note are as follows:

  • Califa Group, a consortium of some 400 California libraries, is deploying the app, with nine libraries now live, including Los Angeles Public Library, and more to follow. 
  • The Connecticut State Library is deploying the app statewide, with many libraries expected to be live soon. 
  • The Massachusetts Library System, Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS), Ocean State Libraries consortium in Rhode Island, and eiNetwork in Pennsylvania are at various stages of deployment, which will bring thousands more libraries into the fold. 

And now, for our case in point, let me tell you what we are doing in Maryland.

A Statewide Deployment

Maryland’s SimplyE deployment is far from complete, but our activities so far may provide a useful case study for other interested libraries, consortia, or states that want to join the movement. The deployment began in 2017, based on a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant from IMLS through the Maryland State Library. State librarian Irene Padilla is a proponent, hoping not only to improve our residents’ experience with library digital content but also to explore the app’s capabilities for others. Her pioneering spirit has been an inspiration to our deployment team: Bob Kuntz of Carroll County Public Library, John Courie of Caroline County Public Library, Tracy Carroll of the Western Maryland Regional Library, Thomas Vose of the Ruth Enlow Library of Garrett County, Nini Beegan of the Maryland State Library, and me, the nominal head of the project. 

With only 24 library systems, Maryland is a good test site for statewide deployment when compared to states with hundreds of systems. However, even working with our relatively small number of participants has presented significant (and illustrative) challenges.

Developing a Deployment Strategy

The first step is determining a process for deployment. Libraries with substantial IT expertise might undertake it themselves. Instructions to deploy are available, but be forewarned: The process is somewhat involved (www.librarysimplified.org/deployinstruction.html). Interested libraries should join the Library Simplified community to draw on experiences of building the cloud, getting the software, and configuring for each unique environment (ILS/catalog provider and content vendors). Many ILSs are supported, and eight digital content vendors are currently supported—including OverDrive, bibliotheca, Baker & Taylor, Odilo, Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), and Unglue.it—with still others being added. We had the interest, but not the technical expertise to deploy ourselves, so we contracted with a vendor. 

A third alternative, used by Califa, is to hire a vendor for initial deployment, but to maintain and update the app independently. Hiring a vendor will likely involve an RFP and signing a contract. Both can be tricky. The app is currently undergoing many enhancements and having new content vendors join, and each change might require modifying it somewhat. It is vital that potential deploying vendors understand what responding to an RFP will entail and that the vendor/library contract carefully details a certain number of upgrades, documenting beforehand what the costs for deployment and various enhancements will be. 

Only two companies responded to our 2017 RFP. We chose Datalogics (www.librarysimplified.org/implementorsdatalogics.html), which has been professional and responsive. Since 2017, Amigos Library Services (amigos.org/simplye) and LYRASIS  (lyrasisnow.org) have joined in deploying the app. All offer good service and are vested in developing SimplyE. 

When signing a contract, pay attention to ensuring that any related app development stays open source and part of the project—and that your library has full ownership of your deployment. Interested libraries are encouraged to join the SimplyE community to learn from our RFP and contracting experiences.

Tips for Working With a Deployment Vendor

A deployment vendor provides a turnkey solution. It sets up a cloud at, for example, Amazon Web Services (AWS). It deploys the app, working with the SimplyE community as necessary, so that the app’s circ manager points to various providers’ Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS) catalogs, ensuring that content works seamlessly. A vendor can serve as a long-term partner, implementing upgrades and new content vendor platforms and being tech support. 

Our experience in multi-system deployment is that individual libraries invariably set up the same ILS system differently, and the vendor must expect to make some adjustments in each iteration. Doing a few at a time (not many at once) is helpful. Every library will need to be involved. Each will need a project leader who can coordinate with various in-house departments (marketing, IT, development, etc.). And every library will need to provide the following:

  • The library’s logo, tagline, and choice of colors for branding purposes
  • Library-specific vendor information (client key/website ID/library ID/default loan period) 
  • Google Analytics information with tracking ID (in order to allow a library to monitor content across all vendors in the app) 
  • A top-level domain address, for example: SimplyE-My-Great-Library.org (Patrons will never see it; it just helps with deployment.)
  • A privacy policy webpage
  • A content license webpage (listing vendors and license terms, a Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA] statement, and point-of-contact email)
  • A troubleshooting email address (with employees in the background to monitor it for initial patron questions or to refer technical issues to the vendor)

The list of items may seem long, but our experience is that they can be provided quickly by each library. The vendor will guide each library through the steps, and the user community can be counted on to provide templates for the necessary webpages. 

Deployment will take patience and last longer than initially expected. However, the end result—when you see content appear in your own app—will make it worth the time and effort. 

Status Report

So far in Maryland, seven library systems are live, with an eighth finished testing and a ninth getting ready to finish testing and go live. Each library has its own branded version of the app. We share a statewide OverDrive collection, and libraries with their own OverDrive content also display it to users in the app. Ebooks from cloudLibrary, Axis 360, and RBdigital are available to patrons whose libraries own content in these platforms. 

All of our libraries are in soft launch mode (highly recommended to make sure everything is working properly before public use—little glitches can occur, although we found only a few as we deployed). The app is functional, and staffers are being familiarized with it, but no public rollout has occurred. We are waiting for audiobook capability, so the app can fulfil its promise as one source for all digital content. While we do not wish to point patrons to ebook content and have them return to other apps for audiobooks, the NYPL and Brooklyn Public Library have found that users are very satisfied with the app for ebooks only. At the time of this writing, audiobook capability was expected soon, with cloudLibrary, Axis 360, and RBdigital leading the way and OverDrive waiting for e-audio to be working on the other platforms. 

Once audiobooks are available, our participating libraries will embark on a public rollout, first by getting buy-in from library staffers based on SimplyE’s ease of use, its branding for the library rather than vendors, its enhanced accessibility and privacy advantages, and its operation across multiple platforms. Once the staff members are on board, the app will be rolled out to patrons. For starters, brandable marketing materials, such as fliers and bookmarks, are available from the SimplyE user community. 

High Hopes

After we go public, we hope some of the Maryland systems that are not yet participating might join in on this initiative. As one might expect, some libraries may be progressive in values, but conservative in business practices. If staffers and patrons are used to a familiar vendor app, moving them to something new can be a challenge for some systems, especially with staff members being “right sized” and busy. We hope that getting all, or most, of a library’s content in a library-branded app provided free via a grant might prove persuasive.

We expect to see an increase in digital use and to foster competition. When the NYPL deployed the app, it saw an increase in ebook use, with one vendor (bibliotheca) seeing its NYPL-owned titles increase by 40%. When patrons are no longer looking for content with one single vendor’s app but rather seeing digital content across platforms, content that’s often not previously discovered becomes more visible.

Two partnerships for additional content may help increase Maryland’s adoption of the app. The DPLA launched Open Bookshelf, a high-quality digital collection of 1,000 popular titles, textbooks, and children’s works that are freely downloadable and chosen by librarians across the U.S. The titles are available through SimplyE. Maryland is including these titles for our libraries (although anyone who downloads the app can access them separately without a library card). DPLA had also a nonprofit content exchange, through which libraries may license works from publishers, including the Big Five. Maryland was the first SimplyE deployment to provide titles from this source; 42% of the Maryland-related titles we have from this exchange were not in OverDrive’s Marketplace. We shall investigate whether DPLA offers other unique content and if its nonprofit (and platform fee-free) status might offer cost savings. 

Two Maryland libraries, the Ruth Enlow Library of Garrett County and St. Mary’s Public Library, will also pilot with Internet Archive’s Open Library (openlibrary.org). In the Open Library, books are digitized, and libraries hold in reserve a physical copy that they own in order to circulate (one user at a time) a digital copy. In effect, the library is circulating the digital copy as if it were print rather than using the more restrictive licensing business model that typically governs ebooks.

Bottom Lines

Deploying the SimplyE app offers challenges that require patience, flexibility, and perhaps some outlay of money. The price depends on the expertise and the deploying vendor, if one has been chosen. A single library with a skilled IT department and effective infrastructure might spend only staff time. Deploying via a vendor might cost $5,000–$15,000 to start, with an AWS and ongoing service contract of about $2,500 to $6,000 annually. 

Why not download the app for iOS or Android, explore the free content from the NYPL and DPLA, and see how easy SimplyE is to use? Especially for libraries with more than one digital content platform, it is likely to be a good investment to promote visibility of your collection—after all, they are your titles, not some vendor’s—and enhance discovery across platforms without sending patrons to many different places. 

In the meantime, Maryland libraries will continue exploring, working within the Library Simplified community to foster new vendor partnerships and business models, and lowering deployment costs by helping vendors gain expertise, as we make SimplyE the “one app to rule” a huge variety of content from many sources, creating a simpler and friendlier user experience. 


Michael BlackwellMichael Blackwell  is the director of St. Mary’s County Library in Maryland. He is the chair of the ReadersFirst Working Group, project manager for implementing the SimplyE app in Maryland, and a member of and contributor to several library digital content initiatives. Blackwell is also interested in library architecture, and he co-chairs the ALA LLAMA Architecture for Public Libraries Committee’s Community of Practice for Buildings and Equipment.