At the same time as the American Library Association is gearing up for new meetings with New York publishers and the AAP this Fall, individual public libraries are demonstrating an almost fervid interest in developing their own independent ebook platforms.
The Internet Archive pioneered the concept of running an Adobe Content Server platform to host our own DRM-protected ebooks through Open Library, and we were delighted to give early assistance to the Douglas County Libraries (DCL) when they independently came to the same conclusion: rolling your own ebook platform provides a degree of independence from ebook intermediaries such as Overdrive, and most importantly, provides a means to purchase versus license e-books, eliminating vicissitudes in fees or business terms that licensing conveys.
Philosophically, the desire to acquire and lend e-books through the same “from our own shelves” model as print books, CDs, and DVDs, greatly motivates the enthusiasm for direct digital content management. Hot on the heels of DCL’s initial success, the Califa consortium of California libraries launched their own ebook platform, which in turn has attracted other library systems such as Kansas’. Harris County, the home of Houston, Texas, has just announced that they are also pursuing a DCL-like model for hosting publisher- and author-provided content.
Library nativism also led to the launch of the ReadersFirst movement, which seeks to garner international library support for a set of principles that would ensure that libraries have the right to acquire whatever content they wish from publishers, and be able to integrate e-book discovery and delivery directly into library catalogs without forcing their users into separate interactions at vendor sites. In a recent ReadersFirst conference call, the Queens Public Library (QPL) announced it was initiating its own platform initiative, the Queens Library ebook Alliance, which would develop “an e-book infrastructure in which Queens Library would facilitate the storage and distribution of digital content as well as the management of lending agreements and transactions between public libraries, publishers, and customers.”
That would be a smart thing to offer, although as early adopters can testify, it is excruciatingly easy to underestimate the amount of work involved. The enthusiasm of libraries to entertain the trouble of setting up their own application servers or hosting relationships for ebooks, and the willingness to do the essential business development of working with publishers and authors, demonstrates the demand for e-books and other digital content acquired under terms that accommodate traditional lending practices. The E*voke web site maintained by the Colorado State Library provides a public list of the growing number of publishers and independent authors willing to sell direct to libraries.
However a growing network of 1-1 business relationships will not scale. As more library consortia develop hosting systems, and more publishers and authors become interested in their business, it becomes unwieldy to repeatedly formulate financial terms and lending policies, and then transfer ebook files and metadata, between each set of partners. Ultimately, intermediaries will aggregate and regularize these relationships, making them more attractive to new participants wary of over-extending themselves. This could be offered by Ingram or Baker & Taylor, but it could just as well be the Queens Public Library or Califa. It’s not a trivial task – it requires staff knowledgeable about publishing, and competent at business development and partner management; it will also require an engineering group able to securely receive, host, and distribute ebook files and metadata with the services necessary for client libraries to configure and customize their own offerings. But it is doable.
I wish all of these library systems the best of luck with their ebook platforms; any one of them may grow into a larger service bureau for the library industry as a whole. However, the bigger ray of hope is simply in the number of libraries interested in pushing down this path, even knowing that it requires skills and resources that are not customarily found within their walls. The ability of libraries to organize, re-invent themselves, and focus energy on new types of innovative services is invigorating, and it highlights a new self-reliance emerging from our stacks. It also demonstrates a market opportunity – one that a growing number of publishers and authors will find appealing, the more that libraries invest in it.