Last Thursday, I interviewed a very well-informed public librarian about Wisconsin’s Digital Library (WDL), powered by OverDrive (OD), and the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium* (WPLC), the state-level consortium that oversees and funds the digital library through its buying pool ($1 million). The consortium is responsible for vendor and materials selection, among other decisions. I asked questions related to the stuff I’ve been reading concerning ebooks and public libraries. Roughly speaking, these issues boil down to: access/availability, pricing, control, and what I’m calling the e-content juggernaut.
Access/availability issues (i.e. providing patrons with resources from as wide a range of publishers/vendors as needed for collection goals, including what’s popular and current): I learned that WPLC selected OD as their vendor because it is and was in 2010 (that year marked a takeoff in devices and demand) the most developed platform with the most publishers and content.** It was also chosen because it allows “authentication” (i.e. patrons log in using their library card number, identified by individual library) allowing the consortium to keep use statistics (e.g. circulation data). In addition, OD allowed Kindle use which is especially popular in the Madison/Middleton area. Part of the impetus for continuing with OD has also been the fact that once a library system has chosen a platform, people get used to its interface and procedures. Still, WPLC’s vendor selection committee meets each year to explore competing vendor options and it sets aside an allotment should alternatives materialize.
Pricing (i.e. the sometimes glaring price differences that libraries must pay for popular ebooks compared to what an individual consumer pays): this is an issue for WPLC but not as glaring an issue as it might be, principally because WPLC has some leverage with its large buying pool, something that makes the consortium unique and an important player.
Control (i.e. the basic idea being that the library has control over its collection and isn’t unduly limited by vendor/publisher constraints and restrictions): this is an important and ongoing issue for WPLC as well as most public libraries. Control covers lots of things including pricing and access, and given limited library budgets, many libraries may be locked into a single vendor (and platform) for their library’s ebook content, limiting choice to the big publishers that a particular vendor negotiates with. Douglas County Libraries (CO) represents an alternative digital content model, in which the library system itself maintains its own “open content” platform giving it greater control over its e-collection, including the ability to deal with small, independent, local and regional publishers.
The largest issue for WPLC and its members seems to be that there is a lot of content out there that can’t be or isn’t supplied by OD (e.g. independent publishers, music, video, donated content, and various user requests, etc). Although Wisconsin libraries feel the need to add these to their collections, they have nowhere to put them (i.e. no open content platform). Right now, the cost in terms of money, staff resources and time to build and maintain an open content platform (as Douglas County Libraries has done) doesn't seem practical. Madison for example, pays a relatively affordable 65,000 annually into the WDL buying pool. Because Madison serves as the resource library for SCLS, in terms of maintaining the open-source library catalog, the staff and resources needed for an open platform would be too heavy a burden.
The e-content juggernaut (i.e. the idea that ebooks and e-content will [and should?] displace the print and physical materials collection): although the rate of growth of circulation for digital content has been very impressive (roughly 100%/yr since 2010), digital content was just 2% of total circulation in 2012 for Wisconsin as a whole. It’s not about to replace print and physical materials in the near future. And while it does have an effect on material budgets shifts and the budget for print books, the biggest impacts on print budgets may be due to city budget issues, or in Madison’s case, the rebuilding and reopening of the new central library and the new staff and resources this entails.
* The WPLC is composed of 17 regional library systems, including the South Central Library System; the 17 systems comprise 385 public libraries).
** OD has 90% of the U.S. public library market and a 99% renewal rate.