ALA’s Ebook Platforms for Libraries: What it’s about and what it’s for

My Library Technology Report (Volume 49; Issue 3) for American Library Association was just released by ALA TechSource and is available for purchase (in print or in electronic versions) through the ALA Store.

I am no stranger to producing massive quantities of content from scratch. It is my life’s work. I’ve taken on impossible-to-tame-and-organize subjects and turned them into directories many times in the past, both as an independent content developer (e.g., The Library Grants Center) and as an editor during my Library Journal days, where I tackled the intricacies of the ebook marketplace before the industry began its transformation (imagine assigning ebook content for review to librarians before decent reading devices were even available — that kind of “tackle”).

But none of my previous endeavors involved the level of complexity I had to work through to compile this report.  In order for potential readers to have a better grasp of how I developed it– and perhaps just as important, why I developed it — some from-the-author insight is in order.

Back in September 2012, after a short hiatus from the industry, I decided to do some catch up and take on some writing assignments. What’s really been happening with ebook products, I started to ask. Same old noise? Are librarians still demanding better ebook lending policies and are the big six (or five, or however low the number is these days) still refusing to offer licensing agreements that would appease some of the (justified) frustration on the library end? Are ebook aggregators getting bigger with each passing day as before? And how many of those “little publishers that could” (responsible for some of the highest-quality content in libraries) have gone out of business or fell into the hands of the more powerful since the last time I checked in with them?

‘Turns out, the ebook companies (in all their incarnations; more on this later), at least as they appear to libraries, have gotten into a big hurry to impress – and this hurry has led to more chaos than most could have predicted a few years back. Emerging and established technologies have enabled companies that have previously sold us packing tape and all kinds of non-book consumer goods (yes, the writer in me still sees it that way), to aggressively enter the library market, disarm most publishers and their ability to distribute their own econtent to libraries, and position themselves as the new forces to be reckoned with. This means that public, academic, and K-12 librarians, however different in what they do, now find themselves facing the same challenge: How do they keep up with it all? How much do they need? How much can they spend? Where do they even begin if they are just starting out with ebooks?

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what the vast and growing ebooks landscape in libraries will look like a year or two from now, but as it stands right now, librarians need to keep up or they will remain behind. That’s what this report aims to do: provide a starting point from which they can embark on their institutions’ ebook ventures.

The goal here is to break it all down for them–objectively and in as much detail as a single author can handle without losing track of it all herself–and to provide a Zagat-style A-Z listing of all the key players in the ebooks market, explain their identities, and the uniqueness of their products. To help me sort through the mess, I’ve developed a technique I use each time I evaluate a new vendor: if you are not producing content from scratch like a publisher or merging content from multiple books for research purposes like an aggregator, then you are a type of distributor. And, of course, you can be more than one of these three at the same time.

It took several months to compile this report. Although I am its sole author, I relied on the feedback provided by a number of (willing) vendors who were asked to supply information as current as possible about each product. The survey sent to the companies catering to libraries (including publishers, aggregators, distributors, and ebook lending services) included a long list of questions, grouped according to these four purchasing criteria: content, technical specs, functionality, and business model. Here is a sampling of the types of information requested from all four groups:

  • number of titles
  • subjects covered
  • type of service (e.g., aggregator, lending service, etc)
  • number of publishers represented
  • key library markets (e.g., public, academic/research, K-12)
  • inclusion of multi-media
  • ebook formats (e.g., ePub, PDF)
  • reading devices supported
  • ADA compliance (yes or no)
  • DRM limitations (copy, paste, print, etc.)
  • Offline reading (yes or no)
  • Annotation tools
  • Usage reports
  • Interlibrary Loan options
  • Annual platform fees
  • Minimal commitment
  • Consortial purchasing
  • Free trials

The information sent back to me was then used to create a long Directory of ebook platforms (the heart of the report) and it was also added to the comparative tables in the back, which librarians may use to gain insight into how certain products stack up against one another to make informed purchasing decisions.

Although I will be the first to admit that comparing these products can lead to an apples-and-oranges frustration, I still believe (and hope to prove with this report) that librarians need a bird’s eye view of the entire ebooks ecosystem to be able to assess what their preferences are. Perhaps it even helps them to predict what their library’s future needs will be. And perhaps it helps vendors themselves see how their products compare to others and ways in which they can be improved.

The world of ebooks will continue to evolve at a dizzying pace and this report will, no doubt, age quicker than most others tackling LIS topics. The companies behind these ebook platforms are growing faster than we can keep up with them, and they will continue to inundate us with announcements about new partnerships, mergers, and initiatives. What’s more, the very definition of “ebook” will continue to evolve as content types begin to merge more rapidly and these platforms start featuring content beyond books, including journals, newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, and web sites (many already do).

This report paints the picture as it is today: vast, complex, and impossibly varied. Just how many of these platforms does your library really need to offer its patrons a wide array of high-quality econtent, both for pleasure reading and research? Probably not more than a few. The million dollar question remains: which few?

If this report helps you understand the big picture and if it helps you get a little closer to deciding which products to offer to your patrons, then it will have served its purpose.–MR



One thought on “ALA’s Ebook Platforms for Libraries: What it’s about and what it’s for

  1. Mirela: This posting is quite useful in introducing your ALA report. Would you let Taylor and Francis have the right to reprint your posting in Public Library Quarterly, 32-4, due out in October. If you are interested, a brief note to me will do. I’ll set up the article for paper publication for you, and send the draft back to you, so I won’t increase your workload.


    Glen Holt
    Editor, PLQ

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