by Greg Toppo)
Readers love e-books. In 2011, just four years after Amazon.com launched its Kindle e-reader, the online bookseller said it had sold more e-books than print books. But you would never guess their popularity by visiting your typical public library's website.
Just 6% of library patrons have ever checked out an e-book, according to a recent survey by the non-profit group Library Renewal. It found that even in the busiest month, only 1% of patrons had bothered with library e-books. If you visit your library's online lending section, you might see why: Most are confusing mazes that redirect patrons to companion websites, which often require users to type in a different user name and password, all with airtight return policies that discourage all but the most die-hard readers from seeing the process through to the end.
"Imagine if you're using Netflix, and every time you wanted to watch a movie it asked you to log in again — and then you had to program your remote," says Andrew Roskill, CEO of BiblioLabs, a startup here. "That's essentially what it is. The sad thing is, there's actually a lot of great content here. It's just that the user experience is awful."
BiblioLabs is pushing to make borrowing library materials as easy as an Amazon "1-Click" purchase. The company grew out of a self-publishing outfit the online retailer purchased in 2005, but it currently has no direct ties to Amazon.
BiblioLabs is working with publishers, e-content licensers and libraries to simplify online lending and, perhaps as significant, to change the way libraries view their collections. Its software allows libraries to deliver any content — e-books, documents, images, video or audio — instantly. Already, 1,700 libraries in Massachusetts have adopted its BiblioBoard platform. The company also has deals with the states of Arizona and North Carolina to give all libraries access to its platform.
Libraries now are forced to treat nearly all books as if they were best-sellers, purchasing e-books much as they do print books. They buy the rights to circulate a set number of copies for a set length of time. So even though the e-book you want is sitting on their server, if all the copies are on other patrons' Kindles or iPads, you can't have it. And once you get it, you'd better read fast, because in two weeks it disappears from your device.
That's insanity, says Roskill, a longtime software analyst. BiblioLabs aims to make materials available on any platform to all libraries' patrons. "No wait-lists, no checkouts," he says.
Think of it as a Netflix video queue. This weekend, when you finally get around to binge-watching all those Orange is the New Black episodes, you can have them instantly, even if everyone else on Netflix is watching them, too. You may not be able to instantly watch the new Tom Cruise movie, which opened in theaters Friday, but that's not why you have a Netflix account. Users love Netflix, Roskill says, because "our expectations are set appropriately."
This is how libraries with limited budgets need to start thinking, he says. "If I can allow one person to read Fifty Shades of Grey or 50 people to read one Kurt Vonnegut book, what is a better use of our resources? If libraries want to have relevance long into the digital age, they're going to have to think long and hard about this. Trying to compete on best-sellers alone is a losing proposition."
In the end, he says, libraries might help themselves most by offering their expertise on varous research topics. In an age when information is everywhere and anyone can download the entire text of Huckleberry Finn in milliseconds, libraries can stay relevant by focusing on what makes them more valuable than a search engine. "Anybody can go to Google and get a million results. Somebody who's an expert in Mark Twain has already done the curation and can say, 'Here are the 100 things that are really most relevant.' "