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Developing an E-Book Strategy: Now and For the Future

by R. Toby Greenwalt on April 26, 2013

This is my inaugural Wired Library column, Public Libraries’ platform for examining how libraries interact with technology. We’ll be looking at many shiny gadgets and web tools through the life of this column, but I want to kick things off by emphasizing that this isn’t about technolust. No matter what tools are out there, a library’s one killer app has always been the human factor. We are the beating analog heart for an increasingly digital world, and it’s our responsibility to provide a strong example whenever new technologies are involved.

This is all the more essential when dealing with the wild world of e-books. Like it or not, libraries have been thrust into a rapidly shifting, highly competitive environment. Publishers, hardware manufacturers, digital marketplaces, and vendors are all jockeying for market share, often at the expense of traditional library service models.1 The path between author and reader has become rather convoluted.

We don’t have the luxury of waiting for things to work themselves out. The holiday season has led to an explosion in e-reader sales,2 and the effect on library activity has been immediate. Where I work, at Skokie (Ill.) Public Library (SPL), our OverDrive statistics show a jump in checkouts that began on December 26 and has yet to let up. The demand for digital content is here, but it’s going to take some sound strategy to address all the issues that come with it.

For my first column, I’d like to offer some suggestions for ways in which libraries can become e-book-friendly. Whether you’ve gone all-in with OverDrive, loan out physical e-readers, or are pursuing alternatives, there are a number of steps you can take to make a claim in the e-book world. We’ll start with things you can do right away, and move into ideas that will require some long-term planning.

Right Now: Focus On Core Competencies

At SPL, we’ve seen a massive influx of e-book–centric questions at the desk. We’ve even had a few people who haven’t even taken their new e-readers out of the box yet. We should be flattered that we’re the first place our patrons think of when they look for help with their e-books. But answering these questions goes beyond having a few e-book geeks on staff. Staff members at all levels need a basic understanding of our services, and that’s going to require some training.

I’m a strong believer in the learn-by-doing approach. Give someone the opportunity to understand a device on their own terms, and proper procedures are far more likely to stick in their heads. Many libraries have created in-house gadget libraries to facilitate these hands-on experiences.

But which devices should you buy? Budgets are tight, and buying every device out there is a fool’s errand. In order to grasp the processes behind the widest range of devices, I would try to get one device from one of these three categories. I’ve also listed a few key competencies—questions that a device-savvy individual should be able to answer.

  1. Built-in: Devices on this tier probably provide the closest thing we have to a seamless checkout experience. (As you’ve no doubt discovered, this is a relative term.) The Sony Reader Wi-Fi has a built-in connection to the OverDrive marketplace, and only requires an Adobe Digital Editions ID to download materials. Kindle products allow content to be beamed directly to the device—once they’ve been checked out on an external computer. While Amazon’s move to turn every checkout into a sales pitch has raised some red flags,3 the fact remains that Kindle remains the most frequently employed device by our patrons.
    Key competencies:
    • How do you activate an Adobe Digital Editions ID on the Sony Reader?
    •How do you manage the titles that show up on your Kindle account? Can you re-send a book to a device, or remove an expired title from your account?
  2. App-based: The next step up on the difficulty scale would be those devices that require a separately downloaded piece of software. This includes Apple iOS and Android smartphones and tablets (including the Kobo Vox), and material downloaded directly to a PC or Mac.
    Key competencies:
    •How do you install and configure Adobe Digital Editions (on a PC or Mac), or the OverDrive app?
    •How do you configure the app so that it remembers your home library?
    •Which formats work with each device?
  3. Side-loading: Any device that requires content to first be downloaded to a computer before it can be transferred to the device itself falls into this category—including older Sony Readers, all Nook models, and Kobo e-ink devices.
    Key competencies:
    •How do you register the device with an Adobe Digital Editions ID?
    •What do you do when the file you’ve downloaded has an .ascm extension?
    •How do you get the book on your device once it’s been downloaded and where can you find it once it’s been transferred?

It’s going to take some practice to develop a muscle memory with these skills. If staffers don’t have opportunities to keep building on their skills, it’s easy for people to forget things rather quickly. Asking recently trained staff members to train their colleagues can help reinforce what they know.
The continued flow of desk questions will also keep staff knowledge sharp. As those curveball questions arise, encourage folks to share what they’ve learned. Continued practice will eventually yield a team of e-book experts.

Next: Expand Your User Base

All of this training is going to help you with the people coming into your library. But how do you expand that audience? Your community has a host of potential partners in this endeavor.

  • Community groups: Civic organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis, and the local Chamber of Commerce are always looking for presenters. Each one provides a built-in audience as you make your case for the library as a source for e-content.
  • Business partners: Community relations managers at Barnes and Noble have been making efforts to get Nooks into public libraries.4 While there is a fairly transparent profit motive in the partnership, it’s still a good chance to promote your collection in high-traffic locations. Contact your local store for more information.
  • Gathering spaces: I’m a big fan of the “eReady Learning Takeovers” developed by Richland County (S.C.) Public Libraries. Noting the prevalence of people reading e-books at local restaurants, librarian Susan Lyon led a group of library staff to “invade” each location to provide e-book instruction, register people for library cards, and engage the public in a casual manner.5

These outreach activities do more than get new people to check out e-content. Casting the net as wide as possible allows you to create a coalition of supporters—people you can cite as evidence of the library’s essential role in the e-book marketplace.

For the Future: Help Build a Sustainable Content Strategy

If you’re an OverDrive subscriber, then you’re well aware of the tenuous hold we have over large chunks of our content. As of this writing, only one of the Big 6 publishers (Random House) offers libraries unfettered access to its e-book collection, and even they have been on record as “actively reviewing” its stance on library purchases.6 This environment is no way to cultivate a healthy e-book ecosystem. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. A number of library-associated organizations are already hard at work.

  • Library Renewal: The brainchild of former Public Libraries columnist Michael Porter, Library Renewal is a nonprofit devoted to creating a sustainable e-content solution that places library values first.
  • Gluejar: This for-profit company is working with authors to identify the cost of “ungluing” their works—making digital copies available to readers and libraries via Creative Commons licensing, without digital rights management (DRM). Think of it like a Kickstarter campaign for e-books.
  • Open Library: The brainchild of the Internet Archive, the Open Library project aims to create a wiki-like interface for every book in existence, including access to an enormous collection of public domain works.
  • The Digital Public Library of America: A project of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the DPLA seeks to build a national repository for digital content, and to use a variety of open-source projects to facilitate access, research, and other patron activity. (Full disclosure: I have been participating in DPLA working groups since early fall 2011.)

As libraries start to take a longer view, we can start thinking creatively about other features e-books can offer. Imagine library e-books that not only could be checked out, but that connect you to a real-time network of associated information and a community of other library users sharing their own reactions and commentary.7 This goes beyond the popular concept of the library as place, rather positioning the library as a platform — a springboard for research, conversation, and building community. To get there, it’s going to take a mix of comprehensive training, community support, and homespun innovation. I hope you’ll join me in pushing things forward.


  1. Randall Stross, “Publishers vs. Libraries: An E-Book Tug of War,” New York Times, Dec. 24, 2011, accessed Jan. 9, 2012.
  2. Bob Minzesheimer, “E-Books Sales Surge after Holidays,” USA Today, Jan. 8, 2012, accessed Jan. 12, 2012,
  3. David Lee King, “Amazon, OverDrive, E-Books . . . and YOU,” DavidLeeKing.com, Oct. 19, 2011, accessed Jan. 10, 2012,
  4. Patrick Sweeney, “Libraries, Tell Amazon to Piss off and Buy Nooks,” PC Sweeney’s Blog, Jan. 5, 2012, accessed Jan. 10, 2012,
  5. Susan Lyon, “E-Books: The New Normal,” Susan Lyon (blog), Dec. 10, 2011, accessed Jan. 11, 2012,
  6. Andrew Albanase, “No Change, But Random House Says It Is ‘Actively Reviewing Library E-book Policy,” Publishers Weekly, Nov. 22, 2011, accessed Jan. 10, 2012,
  7. PLA blogger Nate HIll elaborates on this concept in his vision for the DPLA: “A Suggested Approach for the Digital Public Library of America,” The PLA Blog, May 18, 2011, accessed Jan. 10, 2012.