At ALA, ReadersFirst Moves Forward A Notch

Peter Brantley -- January 31st, 2013

ReadersFirst meeting at ALA MWReadersFirst, the international coalition of libraries seeking to reassert control of user discovery and access for digital content, turned out on a rainy, cold afternoon at Seattle Public Library during ALA Midwinter to discuss their goals with the library vendor community. Members of the ReadersFirst (RF) steering committee ran over the organization’s history and mission, and then elicited engagement with senior representatives from the companies selling services that often, at present, conflict with the goals of RF.

RF seeks a common, cross-content discovery layer in the library catalog so that users only experience the library’s own web services. RF’s goal is for content providers and platforms, such as Overdrive, to provide APIs that enable users to request and retrieve materials without additional vendor interaction. For example, ebooks could retrieved “under the hood” from Overdrive without the user needing to re-authenticate or encounter systems beyond the library catalog. Currently, because libraries are forced to subscribe to services from multiple vendors, the user’s experience of digital media use is fractured with multiple vendor accounts, and ebooks are then accessed through different paths ranging from download to cloud-based access. As steering committee member Christina de Castell of the Vancouver Public Library said, “We don’t need the reader to know where the library bought the ebook from.”

Tom Galante of Queens Public Library reinforced, “The reader should be able to look at their library account and see what they have borrowed regardless of the vendor that supplied the ebook.”

There are both simple and complex ways of doing this, but the marketplace biases the outcome towards complexity. Some of the RF goals could be achieved simply by adopting the Open Publication Distribution System, which is an RSS-like XML (or JSON) specification that provides a list of digital content in a catalog format, with pointers to retrieve the content from the preferred source. OPDS explicitly supports DRM’ed content and is media neutral. The Internet Archive utilizes OPDS catalog feeds to drive updates to Nook and Kobo for public domain books; these retailers extract and load the metadata into their own native discovery services; when a Nook or Kobo users selects a public domain book, they are actually retrieving it from the Internet Archive. This redirection is simple and ensures that the patron has access to the most recent version available, and there is no need to push user account or identifying information between providers.

However, many library platform vendors have established full-featured platforms that deliver comprehensive discovery, access, and management support. In other words, vendors distinguish themselves from their rivals by integrating services that RF libraries, in contrast, would prefer to unbundle, pulling user interaction back into the library catalog, and selecting the best-of-breed for library staff management purposes. The search for market differentiation pushes vendors into defining services that may be superior to anything that libraries would otherwise be able to access within their ILS, but at the cost of frustrating straightforward content integration. RF seeks common APIs which would ease mix-and-match service selection, which in turn may encourage greater competition and innovation in the marketplace by giving vendors more discrete goals. Through the enforcement of common catalog interactions via APIs, vendors would be compelled to compete on ease-of-use; management tools; reliability; and other factors more germane to the reader experience.

RF will have a tricky job ahead to delineate more clearly the trade-off between service commonalities and sometimes desirable optimizations for specific communities and types of content, such as audio ebooks. Vendors did a credible job of highlighting this tension, and asked RF to prioritize their list of desiderata, a task that RF committed to delivering. The most aggressive statements came from Steve Potash, the CEO of Overdrive, who proclaimed his support for RF principals while demanding that RF libraries put “skin in the game” by allocating some of their own resources to support and maintain the kind of user experience they were seeking. Observing that his company has already started pursuing a more open API strategy, Potash urged libraries to “just do it” by requiring vendors to support single sign-on through OAuth+LDAP and delivering API access. Both vendors and librarians seem to believe that the essential technical needs can be accommodated through joint efforts, but there are enough edge cases to stymie across-the-board transformation.

The compulsions of publishers will not make this simpler. Although Christopher Platt of the New York Public Library disclosed that Tina Jordan of the AAP has reached out to learn more about RF, publisher strategies frustrate RF’s goals, and indeed, are partially responsible for them. Some publishers are fragmenting access to their ebook catalogs across multiple vendors, compelling the investments in unified user experiences that RF is seeking from vendors. Moreover, experimentation in lending models, whether 1-copy/1-loan, or licensed provision for a multiple of simultaneous accesses, or combinations of circulation and time-based limits, all complicate RF goals. Creating a discovery service that can untangle the catalog UI for books that might be simultaneously available through multiple sources under differing terms will require skillful metadata management and presentation. Indeed, delivering parsimonious in-line item description and accompanying access terms, along with reliable real-time updates, was a design goal of the OPDS specification. The problems are not singular, but their solution requires coordination.

As Jim Loter of the Seattle Public Library observed, the ultimate goal is provide a more streamlined experience for users which would increase use of library services. Measuring the success and value that libraries bring to their communities has to be a more complex formula than circulation counts. However, library integration of the user experience comes at a cost to vendors in the currency of “intentionality data” that users generate through interaction with content platforms – data that assists vendors in providing better services, and differentiating their products. Jamie LaRue of Douglas County noted that digital media services afford both libraries and vendors opportunities for new kinds of partnerships that are mutually beneficial. For example, anonymized library book recommendations or ratings might be provided back to the pool of ebook vendors, yielding each more aggregate information than they would otherwise receive alone.

ReadersFirst has a long way to go, but its goals are both admirable, and at least to some extent, achievable. More importantly, their clear elaboration – a tight focus uncommon in the library community – is drawing their commercial partners into necessary discussions about how to structure library services in the 21st Century. The elaboration of these debates could indeed generate an outcome greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

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