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Magazines > Information Today > June 2016

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Information Today
Vol. 33 No. 5 — June 2016
How Massachusetts Libraries are Disrupting the Ebook System
By Jenny Arch

Video might have killed the radio star, but it didn’t kill the radio. Both formats still flourish today; in fact, viewers and listeners have more to choose from than ever. Book lovers have more options as well: ebooks, audiobooks, and trusty print books. The ebook did not kill the book; it just became another option for readers to buy—and borrow.

More than 90% of public libraries offer ebooks to their patrons, but only 62% of adults are aware of these offerings, according to “Libraries and Learning,” a 2016 report from Pew Research Center’s Internet, Science & Tech division. (Twenty-two percent say they don’t know if their libraries lend ebooks, and 16% say their libraries don’t offer ebooks.) In Pew’s 2015 “Libraries at the Crossroads” report, only 38% of people are aware that their library lends ebooks, and not everyone who knows that ebooks are available has tried to download one.

Librarians are working hard to raise awareness of and connect library users with digital content, but “friction” is often an issue: the difficulty, by design or not, of checking out an ebook from the library. Publishers were slow to agree to sell e-books to libraries at first, concerned that if people could borrow them for free from the library, their sales would plummet. However, this has not been the case; ebook sales rose rapidly as the format (and the devices necessary to use it) gained popularity. Althoughgrowth has somewhat slowed recently, that is more likely a reflection of readers’ preferences than an indication that sales to libraries are taking a chunk out of the digital market. After all, the availability of print books at public libraries has not cannibalized their sales; rather,libraries are a place where readers discover new books and authors, and many readers buy as well as borrow.

Publishers sell (or, more commonly, license) ebooks to libraries under a variety of pricing models and loan rules. Nearly all models are “one copy, one user,” which imposes the restrictions of physical books onto ebooks using DRM. Some publishers set other restrictions, such as a limit on the number of checkouts; ebooks from HarperCollins Publishers, for example, can be borrowed 26 times, at which point they expire and the library must choose whether to pay for the title again. Other publishers, such as Penguin Random House, simply set a higher price on ebooks for libraries, often as much as triple the consumer price.

Publishers want to protect their sales and are exploring different models for doing so. Librarians want to offer their patrons books in every format they desire, ebooks included, but are working with budgets that tend to be flat or decreasing. Most librarians are also committed to sharing resources through local consortia or even statewide networks.

Library Essential

In Massachusetts, many consortia offer ebooks through third-party vendor OverDrive, which provides its own platform. Librarians still select the content, and library budgets pay for the materials as well as the platform fee. Patrons can access the content with their library card number. Individual libraries may offer access to digital materials through other platforms as well, but costs can be prohibitive. And unlike with physical items, the digital content acquired this way cannot then be shared outside of the library or network.

This limitation on resource sharing frustrates library staffers and confuses patrons. Ryan Livergood, former library director of the Robbins Library in Arlington, Mass., says, “Having the ability to provide the digital content our patrons want (and need) is an essential part of what libraries do. Providing access to information is one of our core services. Not being able to deliver this access means that we aren’t able to do a part of our job.”

Brian Herzog, assistant director of the Chelmsford (Mass.) Public Library, says, “Our patrons are already accustomed to requesting physical materials from other Massachusetts libraries, and it’s always hard to explain why this isn’t possible for ebooks as well.”

Linda Dyndiuk, head of reference at the Robbins Library, agrees: “Many of our patrons move from one town to another, which can drastically change what they have access to, and many live in one community and work in another. Our patrons are used to requesting books from other towns, so when they find ebooks in the catalog that they can’t access, they are often disappointed or frustrated.”

This inconsistent and unequal access to digital resources was part of the impetus for what is now called Commonwealth eBook Collections (CEC). The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ (MBLC) Massachusetts Libraries website states, “Just as we do with print materials, Massachusetts Libraries are committed to providing equal access to digital content for all Massachusetts residents. However, with so many different eformats, restrictions and devices used ... right now we don’t have one seamless way for you to easily access what you’re looking for. But, we’re working on it. In the meantime, we’ve provided the following ways for you to get eBooks.” The options are a Boston Public Library card (available to any Massachusetts resident), CEC’s beta site, and network ebook collections (the regional consortia).

CEC allows Massachusetts residents to access digital content for free. According to Stephen Spohn, Massachusetts Library Systems’ (MLS) resource sharing director, CEC was“born from a call to action from Massachusetts libraries.” High prices, restrictive terms, and cumbersome usability were all problems for libraries across the state wishing to provide ebooks to their users. The aims of CEC are to build a statewide shared collection, to fight for a great user experience across platforms, and to advocate for libraries in the marketplace.

Bridging the Digital Divide

CEC began as the MA eBook Project, with 51 pilot libraries—public, school, and academic—across the state. Before this initiative, ebook vendors would only sell to individual libraries and consortia, says Deb Hoadley, MLS’ ebook team leader at the time. The many small libraries that did not belong to a network found the platform cost prohibitive, and the cost of the ebooks was at least 25% more than that of their print counterparts. Hoadley says, “The MA eBook Project wanted to bridge the digital divide by providing ebooks to those who could not afford it or have a way to access them.”

Jackie Rafferty, library director of the Paul Pratt Memorial Library in Cohasset, Mass., and chair of CEC’s eBook Program Steering Committee, says, “Having a statewide platform means that a larger coalition of librarians are working together to meet the information needs of all of our users. A state platform has more clout and more purchasing power. All libraries are stronger if we collaborate as much as possible.” Just as regional networks have more purchasing—and bargaining—power than individual libraries, a statewide platform has more power than smaller networks.

The library directors who chose to participate in the pilot were quick to see the advantages of collaboration on a larger scale. Livergood says, “I saw the MA eBook Project as an initiative that would bring all of the libraries in Massachusetts together to leverage our influence and resources to address the major issues between libraries and publishers regarding the e-book availability and the cost of e-books.”

Usability and Content

The MA eBook Project had a bold mission, but had to compromise on a number of points right away. Hoadley says, “The original vision was to offer e-books to multiple users simultaneously. … We also wanted the process of checking out an e-book to be simple—one click (maybe two) and you would be reading your e-book.” That vision was not realized during the pilot phase, partly due to the fact that no single vendor was able to offer everything in the RFP. Hoadley says, “We ended up using three vendors for the MA eBook Project, each offering specific aspects we were looking for in the RFP.”

Molly Moss, head of reference at the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass., and a member of the MBLC Resource Sharing Committee and the CEC Collection Development Subcommittee, says she was inspired after hearing Jamie LaRue speak at an MLS meeting. (LaRue, former director of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, launched the “Douglas County model,” which offers ebooks through its own platform, cutting out the vendors and focusing on content from independent presses, not the Big Five publishers with their restrictive licensing terms.) “Due to the urgency of the project,” Hoadley says, the Douglas County model “was not considered a viable option for MLS at the time.”

“The pilot fell short in that it took a lot longer to implement the infrastructure; due to the pilot nature of the project, we did not have item records loaded in our catalog, so user discoverability was low, which made assessment difficult; and multiple platforms (still) make patron use difficult,” says Moss.

Although CEC now offers a single interface to search for content, users during the pilot had to navigate three separate interfaces, one for each vendor, and download and use different apps to access content from each. Librarians involved with the pilot generally felt that user-friendliness varied and support materials were lacking. There are now some training materials for library staff, but it’s up to librarians to create training materials for patrons. Dyndiuk says that during the pilot, “We didn’t recommend these collections to patrons who weren’t savvy at navigating online resources.”

User-friendliness has improved already. Hoadley and Rafferty both noted how responsive the vendors were during the pilot phase. Hoadley says, “[The vendors] are partners in the process, not just salespeople making a deal. They also care deeply about how patrons access e-content. They worked to continually improve their platforms and the technology for access.” Rafferty particularly praises Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 platform for responding to the Steering Committee’s suggestions to improve functionality and accessibility. The vendors, she says, “have vested interest and incentive to make the CEC successful.” She adds, “Everyone benefits when there is marketplace competition. So, the development and increasing success of the CEC is making OverDrive more competitive in order to maintain library customers.”

Although many librarians found that the multiple platforms made for a fractured and frustrating user experience, most were pleased with the content they were able to access during the project and now through CEC. Tricia London, director of Avon Middle High School’s library and member of the CEC Collection Development Subcommittee, found that the three parts of the collection complemented each other well: Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 offers popular ebooks such as bestselling fiction, the BiblioBoard platform provides public domain material and primary source documents, and EBL offers scholarly content.

London says, “The Commonwealth eBook Collection has been wonderful in providing materials that a small school library just doesn’t have. … I really love being able to offer the Commonwealth eBook Collection to my students. The alternative, OverDrive, is just out of our price range.” London singled out the BiblioBoard platform as being particularly useful: “One of the best parts of [BiblioBoard] is the access to something called Content Creator. This allows librarians and teachers to curate public domain and personal primary sources into attractive collections.”

Public librarians approved of the content too. Dyndiuk says, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the robustness of the collection, in terms of both popular and academic titles. Several times patrons have come in looking for a scholarly text for a class that isn’t in the [network] print collection, but was available” through CEC.

Philosophical Importance

No pilot is flawless, and the MA eBook Project was no exception. But it has continued, and improved, as CEC. The statewide network, with its increased bargaining power, is an important force to bring about equal access to digital content for all citizens. Moss says, “A statewide network can more effectively work with publishers to provide access to patrons. Our systems, and individual libraries, don’t have the time, staffing, expertise, et cetera, to negotiate to provide access.”

Hoadley says, “The MA eBook Project was the first ebook project in the nation where all types of libraries (public, academic, and school) had the same access to e-books. [During the pilot], the libraries worked together in the best interest of all, despite their various needs in providing certain content to their users. They had a vested interest in seeing statewide access succeed and came together around this common effort with an open mind and willingness to take a risk.”

Kirsten Underwood, head of reference at the Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, Mass., hopes that state funding will support CEC to ensure equal access across Massachusetts. She says that the statewide collection “has to be affordable in order to achieve the level playing field that was intended. At this point the cost is often still a barrier to the libraries who were hoping to participate. … The pricing model as it now stands still tends to create the haves and have-nots. For this reason we need to advocate strongly in the legislature to increase state funding for this important project.”

Should that advocacy be successful in obtaining state funding to support CEC, Massachusetts libraries would be able to offer the same kind of resource sharing for digital content as they currently do for physical items, fulfilling a core mission of libraries. Dyndiuk says, “Some communities have better funding than others, which means their collections will always be more robust, and we share resources so that patrons from less well-funded communities don’t need to miss out. A statewide network makes this sort of resource-sharing more seamless and opens up resources to everyone.”

This article originally appeared as "Ebooks in Libraries: Equal Access to Digital Content?" in the June 2016 issue of Information Today.

Jenny Arch is an adult services librarian at the Robbins Library in Arlington, Mass. She has a B.A. from Hampshire College and an M.L.I.S. from Simmons College. She blogs at and is on Twitter (@itsokihaveabook). Send your comments about this article to