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Seize and Solve This Challenge

Submitted by Tom Peters on August 4, 2010 - 11:08am

Most professional challenges encompass both a problem to be solved and an opportunity to be seized.  One of the current central challenges of our profession, it seems to me, involves ensuring that libraries become viable and valuable in the burgeoning portable eReading field.  How can libraries compete with the likes of Amazon, Google, Apple, Sony, and Barnes & Noble? 

COSLA, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, recently released a report that addresses this crucial challenge.  Our mission, should we choose to accept it, can be stated bluntly:  If convenient, enriching portable eReading becomes about half of all reading for pleasure within the next few years, as most experts now are predicting, how can public libraries become integral to the portable eReading experience? 

The report, “COSLA: eBook Feasibility Study for Public Libraries,” involved a working team of several state library directors, including Stacey Aldrich from California, Jo Budler from Kansas, Rob Maier from Massachusetts, and Jim Scheppke from Oregon, and staff members from Pinpoint Logic, a design strategy and research firm based in Portland, Oregon.  (Full Disclosure: I did a little bit of work on this study and was remunerated for doing so.)   Eva Miller from PinPoint Logic conducted most of the interviews with library, publishing, and information technology leaders and wrote most of the final report.  Way to go, Eva. 

The work of the task force always focused on worthwhile action, noting that “COSLA members wanted to arm themselves for action, instead of waiting to see how commercial forces would impact popular reading materials and the public library's central role in providing them.”  In the beginning, the task force seriously considered having a portable reading device manufactured specifically for public library users utilizing the library lending model.  This strategy eventually was tabled, because the portable eReading device marketplace is so fast-paced and volatile. 

The report consists of two sections.  The first summarizes a series of interviews with library directors and other librarians, thus helping to define the scope of the challenge.  Several themes emerged from this series of interviews:

  • Find a low-cost, rugged, expandable way to allow public library users to use portable eReading devices.
  • Improve the discoverability and usability of eBook content provided by public libraries.
  • Create larger eBook collections, pure and simple.  Users have come to expect large online collections with lots of current content as well as a long tail. 
  • Collaborate nationally to achieve better pricing and usage models, including reasonable copyright and DRM models as well as standards and best practices that acknowledge the vital role of public libraries in the national culture of reading.
  • Explore how libraries can create spaces that foster social interaction as part of the avocational reading experience, especially locally, around lifelong learning and living literature. 

The second section, a series of interviews with industry leaders, builds on the first by articulating seven possible avenues of action. 

  1. Consolidate and leverage our purchasing power.
  2. Create one point of access for many libraries
  3. Develop an eBook reader certification process
  4. Research and document how libraries and library use contribute to a culture of reading, by showing, for example, how library use correlates with book buying
  5. Help local authors and support self-publishing
  6. Provide more leadership around civic discourse and public policy debates regarding reading
  7. Redesign libraries as labs for new reading experiences

During this process at least two pressing larger needs became evident.  The first is for a level of national collaboration between and beyond public libraries heretofore unknown.  Libraries have a rich, proud heritage of cooperation and collaboration, but the challenges of the portable eReading revolution will require us to take collaboration to a higher level. 

The second is the need to collectively become more agile and forceful in the portable eReading market.  For the next several years, the portable eReading experience will develop rapidly, and user expectations and behavior patterns will clarify.  If we wait for things to settle down, it may be too late for public libraries.  To quote Muhammed Ali, we need to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” 

While portable eReading seems poised to really take off in a lasting, meaningful way, the current craze for portable eReading could fizzle and die again, as it did about 10 years ago.  However, this time around seems real, not hyped.  The upcoming holiday gift-giving season probably will provide the definitive answer. 

COSLA is to be commended for taking a leadership role regarding this crucial challenge facing public libraries.  It is amazing how much the portable eReading market has grown and changed in the eight months the COSLA task force worked on this report.  The challenge for public libraries and, by extension, public library users, became clearer and more pressing, too.  This informative, provocative COSLA report, along with other recent documents, such as the OverDrive white paper about how library catalogs spur book sales (http://www.overdrive.com/files/PubWhitePaper.pdf), should be read and discussed widely within our profession.  Then we must act, before it is too late. 

COSLA Report available at: http://www.cosla.org/documents/COSLA2270_Report_Final1.pdf