Own Your Own Ebook Lending Service
Monique Sendze and Laurie Van Court
If someone were to give us an ebook, do we have the tools to receive it, to integrate it into our catalog, and to check it out?” Douglas County Libraries (DCL) director Jamie LaRue posed this question to DCL's associate director of IT, Monique Sendze, in December 2010. The fact that she answered, “No,” launched DCL into an entirely new way of doing business.
|DCL's ebook model is predicated on the belief that libraries should own, rather than lease, their collections' content.
DCL is a public library district located midway between Denver and Colorado Springs, Colo. DCL serves a population of about 295,000. In 2012, the library circulated 8.1 million items to 226,000 cardholders and purchased more than 184,000 items.
DCL's mission is to be a passionate advocate for literacy and lifelong learning. Among the library's core values are delivering a current, high-quality collection that meets our public's needs and blazing trails by being innovative and visionary. Providing access to the content of our culture through our collections and technology is one of our guiding principles, and we pride ourselves on being pioneers within the library industry.
The Issues: Why We Built a New Model
The year 2010 brought pivotal ebook developments to the library world. The Kansas State Library entered into contentious, and ultimately unsuccessful, negotiations with the econtent vendor OverDrive over proposed price hikes totaling nearly 700% during 3 years. Libraries found that, for ebooks, OverDrive was increasingly the “only game in town,” as the major publishers declined to sell outright econtent at any price. The Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) published its thought-provoking report, “eBook Feasibility Study for Public Libraries.” Two months later, Library Journal hosted a 1-day virtual conference, Ebooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point.
At the same time, demand for ebooks was exploding. According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), sales of ebooks in the U.S. grew by more than 160% between 2009 and 2010, from $166.9 million to $441.3 million. Similar growth was evident in DCL's own ebook circulation during the same period:
Despite growing demand, the supply of ebooks available for DCL to circulate was limited. Traditional mainstream publishing was dominated by the Big Six publishers, most of which refused to sell outright econtent to libraries. Those publishers who would sell to libraries charged prices that were many times higher than prices for the same titles in print. Or, as in the case of HarperCollins, econtent “sale” came with a use restriction of 26 loans per book. Furthermore, the publishers would not offer the same bulk-purchasing discounts that libraries rely on to stretch their collection development budgets. DCL discounts average 45%; its budget is slightly more than $3.5 million.
The emergence of OverDrive as an econtent provider brought its own problems. OverDrive retains ownership of its econtent titles, leasing them to libraries for use only through OverDrive's own platform. OverDrive titles weren't discoverable through DCL's OPAC (open public access catalog); patrons seeking econtent were forced to search an entirely separate OverDrive interface. (Later, alternative aggregator ebook providers, such as 3M and Baker & Taylor, required users to browse other proprietary discovery platforms.) If a library discontinues its relationship with OverDrive, it loses all the content for which it has paid. As the Kansas State Library learned, OverDrive is also willing to unilaterally raise its license pricing.
The loss of ebook ownership had particularly difficult implications for DCL. The library would not be able to lend leased titles to other libraries via interlibrary loan (ILL). Nor would DCL have archival rights to the books it had paid for, even if a vendor were to go out of business. The vendor also retained the power to add or delete books from DCL's collection, depending on the vendor's current agreements with publishers.
DCL found another significant issue with ebook delivery status quo in 2010. Available content originated almost entirely from mainstream commercial publishing, or the previously mentioned Big Six publishers, but three additional important streams of econtent were also largely unavailable to libraries: independent or midlist publishers, local historical documents, and self-published books. The latter category represents the fastest-growing segment of published content. In 2004, there were 29,000 self-published books in the U.S. By the end of 2010, there were more than 2.7 million self-published titles. (In an address to the PubWest annual conference in October 2012, Otis Chandler, founder and CEO of Goodreads, stated that about 350,000 new titles were published in 2011, and 150,000 to 200,000 were self-published. By 2015, the total is likely to reach 600,000 new titles per year, as the self-publishing trend increases. Self-published titles already appear regularly on TheNew York Times best-seller lists.)
Overlooking these three additional content streams not only limited the resources the library was able to offer its patrons, but it also denied the library opportunities to record local history and to support the burgeoning ranks of new authors. Those losses, plus the other negatives attached to the existing publisher-driven econtent model, spurred DCL to create its own approach to acquiring, managing, and circulating ebooks.
The Solution: How We Built a New Model
The DCL's ebook model is predicated on the belief that libraries should own, rather than lease, their collections' content. Wherever possible, DCL purchases ebook files and hosts them on its own Adobe Content Server (ACS), applying digital rights management (DRM) where it is required by the publisher. Ebooks are integrated into DCL's catalog and are discoverable through a customized version of the open source VuFind discovery portal. DCL-owned ebooks have defined circulation periods, just like print materials. They can be read online or downloaded to mobile devices. DCL ebooks circulate on a “one user per copy” basis, and the library buys additional copies in response to reader demand, at the rate of one copy purchased per four hold requests. Ebooks are promoted through large-screen discovery displays and DCL website features. Public catalog ebook listings include links to purchase, so patrons always have the option to buy their favorite or hold-listed titles.
This project required development not only of new technology, but also of new legal, collection development, acquisition, promotion, and marketing processes. DCL staff built new relationships with vendors, investigated new markets, created new discovery paths, and found new ways to promote its ebooks. The DCL ebook model is a groundbreaking approach to connecting library patrons with a universe of books.
Technical components. Development of the model's technical components began early in 2011. Components included the following:
- An ACS was installed, including configuration for econtent purchase, DRM, search, circulation, holds, and reporting. In addition to the ACS, our model's architecture includes a fulfillment server and a media server.
The ACS interacts with the library's ILS and its discovery layer. It also integrates with an HTML5 reader, developed by DCL IT staff, so digital content can be read online in the browser system, directly from the server.
- The open source discovery layer, VuFind, was heavily modified to handle econtent management and circulation. DCL staff quickly discerned that its ILS simply wasn't designed to accommodate the logistics of econtent circulation. The ILS assumes that circulated items are physical; it couldn't flex to address items that don't require shelf space in specific locations. So DCL chose to customize VuFind to become a discovery layer and a circulation management system for econtent. After many hours of trying to resolve the differences between hard copy and digital items' circulation, IT staff decided to sidestep DCL's ILS completely to accomplish the library's goal of seamless searching and checkout for patrons.
All of the library's econtent is now managed entirely through a combination of VuFind, Solr full-text indexing, a MySQL database for Creative Commons content, and ACS for DRM content. Application programming interfaces (APIs) were also developed for the DCL VuFind system to enable additional product integration, such as the Virtual Powerwall display and a DCL-branded e-reading application that was created on top of the VuFind platform.
VuFind was initially configured with the help of a third-party consultant. After its initial launch, we added a full-time web application developer to our IT team. One of the developer's responsibilities is VuFind's ongoing maintenance and improvement.
- A new recommendation engine, using patrons' own reading histories, was created to increase exposure to the digital collection.
- The iDCL Reader mobile e-reader app was created from a commercial white label product (BlueFire Reader) and accepted for distribution on the Android (Google Play) and iOS (iTunes) platforms.
- A touch-screen discovery display, the Virtual Powerwall, was developed to offer patrons the same browsing experience that has succeeded with our physical powerwall displays. Library staff selects displayed econtent using the same principles that drive our physical powerwalls: what we know people look for, what's hot, and what's seasonal.
- DCL's website was enhanced in two ways to encourage econtent use. First, the VuFind discovery portal was integrated into the site's design so that the library's collection can be searched from nearly every page. Second, a carousel display of new, popular, and genre titles was installed on the front page to offer the powerwall experience to every website visitor.
Operational adjustments. As we were implementing the technical aspects of the new ebook model, many operational changes were also necessary throughout our organization:
- Library administration reconfigured the annual budget to allow for new product development and the purchase of a new content type.
- The Collection Development department forged new relationships with different content providers and devised new approaches to content selection. Our first publishing partner was the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA), which submitted many of its annual award-winning ebooks for publication in the DCL ebook model. Collection development librarians made contact with hundreds of publishers through outreach efforts across the United States. Some of these efforts were unique: DCL was the first public library to exhibit at the 2012 annual conference of PubWest, an association of small and midsize publishers. PubWest gave us the unusual opportunity to be a buyer amid the other seller-exhibitors, as well as a chance to introduce fellow exhibitors to public library culture. The 2012 conference also prepared us to be exhibitors at the 2013 BookExpo America (BEA). By year-end 2012, DCL was working with more than 20 publishers. In early 2013, we finalized a partnership with Smashwords, the largest distributor of self-published ebooks.
- The acquisition team developed strategies to track purchases from sellers who were completely unfamiliar with typical library processes. Some publishers needed help producing and delivering clean and consistent EPUB files. We needed to develop upload protocols for large and small ebook orders. The complexities of working with a growing number of econtent providers required DCL to contract with a third-party vendor, Impelsys, to develop an ebook acquisition dashboard tool. The acquisition dashboard will allow us to import publishers' catalog lists, select and add titles for purchase, and generate multiple purchase orders based on the number of different publishers. It also automatically generates email alerts to librarians for all new catalog updates and to acquisitions staff when selection lists are submitted for purchase.
- Members of our collection development and administration teams quickly discovered that publishers were wary of the legal aspects of selling econtent to a public library. In response, DCL director Jamie LaRue created a letter that lays out in clear terms exactly how DCL will (and won't) use purchased econtent (evoke.cvlsites.org/resources -guides-and-more/letters-forms-agreements). To streamline the purchase process, we consulted with copyright attorneys to draw up our Statement of Common Understanding for Purchasing Electronic Content (evoke.cvlsites.org/files/2013/01/Common UnderstandingPurchaseEbooks2013Jan7.pdf). These two documents have saved us immeasurable time and effort in negotiating econtent acquisition.
- The cataloging team learned to handle ebook files for which the MARC records were incomplete or nonexistent. Catalogers also had to learn the intricacies of cross-walking records provided by publishers in the retail ONIX format or Excel spreadsheets into library-friendly MARC formats.
- DCL's training department developed materials and classes to teach new and evolving ebook processes to library staff. And frontline staffers, in turn, communicate those same processes to library patrons on a daily basis.
- DCL's leadership also used some unusual approaches to promote the library's ebook program to the staff and the public. In the fall of 2011, the library's board of directors offered a $50 credit to every DCL employee toward the purchase of an e-reading device. Employees could choose from a list of suggested devices; they were promptly reimbursed by the DCL business office after showing proof of purchase. Leadership also approved the creation, by a professional filmmaker, of a video describing DCL's ebook strategy (douglascountylibraries.org/digital-branch).
Development of the DCL ebook model began in early 2011. Installation of the ACS server, construction of the VuFind discovery layer, and formation of the CIPA partnership occurred through the spring of 2011. The VuFind discovery layer was publicly released in mid-June 2011. Development of econtent interfaces and workflows continued through the remainder of 2011, with the first version of the econtent system, including the ACS server and DCL's Horizon ILS, released in early December 2011. A second version, integrating VuFind, was released in February 2012, and a third version, integrating OverDrive titles, was released in March 2012. By June 2012, the DCL ebook model, with all components working, was fully functional and loaded with 25,000 ebook titles. The recent addition of Smashwords titles brings our current hosted ebook total to more than 35,000.
Outcomes and Future Plans
Monique's project planning expertise was critically important to the successful launch of the DCL ebook model. That expertise continues to be necessary as the model grows and evolves. Indeed, debugging, refinement, and additional development will likely always require significant effort to keep the ebook system responsive, relevant, and fresh.
We now use Scrum, a form of agile project management, to constantly maintain and improve VuFind and related ebook model functions. Suggested enhancements and needed bug fixes are collected through IT help-desk tickets and automated suggestion boxes on our public website and staff intranet. Suggestions and fix requests are stored in a backlog and addressed through periodic sprints, which is the basic time unit of Scrum. Each sprint extends for a period of 3 weeks; the first two are for development and the third is for testing. Thus, the IT econtent team releases fixes and features on a regular basis. The team collaborates and documents its work using the online Scrum tool Yodiz. During every sprint, the team conducts weekly meetings and meets prior to new sprints in order to determine what items from the backlog to address next. Since DCL is its own vendor in our ebook model, we anticipate that this kind of structured approach to maintenance and enhancement will always be necessary.
DCL built its ebook model with the full expectation of sharing the model and all of its components with any other interested libraries. The Marmot Library Network (which includes public, school, and academic libraries throughout Colorado's mountain communities) implemented its own VuFind discovery layer in 2010. By incorporating DCL's VuFind code and sharing DCL's ACS server in 2012, Marmot launched its ebook model. The Califa Library Group, California's not-for-profit library cooperative, has launched an ebook project that's also based on the DCL's model. We continue to talk with libraries throughout the United States about the DCL ebook model and share resources and experiences wherever we can.
The DCL ebook model now provides the basis for Douglas County Libraries' digital branch. We will continue to seek additional publishing partners, perfect the process of econtent acquisition and delivery, and encourage our community's involvement in assessing our new streams of content. We now stand ready to serve econtent authors everywhere, whether they are long established or just starting out in our own neighborhoods. We can provide fresh, exciting ebooks to everyone in Douglas County, from a wide variety of sources that are compatible with most e-reading devices. We're ready to embrace the digital revolution now, however it evolves.