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Talking the E-Book Talk and Walking the E-Content Walk

by Michael Porter and David Lee King on April 29, 2013

Ah, ALA Annual Conference: the heat, the rain, the gumbo and po’boys (after all, it was in New Orleans this year), the lovely Libraryland conversations, and camaraderie! Amid all of that, people were hungry to hear and talk about what is happening—and will be happening—with libraries and e-content access, particularly e-books.

David: So e-books are driving the conversation at this point in the profession then? That does make sense, given that “books are our brand” in the eyes of most of the public.

Michael: Definitely. Being able to present about it and talk with folks about it is a great opportunity to get people thinking a little differently about what libraries offer in an e-book world, so that was one great thing about this year’s ALA conference.

David: Yep, we’ll keep advocating for systems that facilitate access to all kinds of e-content, not just e-books.

Michael: Exactly, and that point was made in most of the conversations and presentations on the topic that I was involved with. I had lots of conversations every day about this. And since I’m now, post-conference, a member of ALA’s Executive Board (which still blows me away a little bit, I must admit), I was asked to present to them on the topic on behalf of the Equitable Access to Electronic Content (EQUACC) Task Force that I co-chaired. I had the opportunity to address ALA Council on the work of that task force and present our recommendations.

David: So what were the recommendations?

Michael: Well, you can read about them in American Libraries magazine online. The short version is that the task force recommended, ALA Council approved, and the ALA Executive Board will now implement two actions in relation to electronic content and the future of libraries:

  1. Refer the report to the Budget Analysis and Review Committee (BARC) for review for fiscal implications, and to the Executive Board to develop a plan to implement report recommendations. The results of BARC’s and the Executive Board’s work will be shared with Council by August 1, 2011.
  2. Request the ALA president and Executive Board to establish an ongoing group to address current and future issues of equitable access to digital content on a coordinated, association-wide basis.

As ALA Ohio Chapter Councilor Pam Hickson-Stevenson wrote on her ALAOHChapCoun’s Blog (yes, that’s really the name of the blog): “Council engaged in a lengthy discussion about next steps, with numerous pleas from councilors for ALA to address these issues as quickly as possible.” It was encouraging to get this sense of urgency from Council as they commented on the task force’s recommendations, and we feel hopeful that ALA as a body will respond in even more significant ways than it has thus far.

Saturday was a good day to talk electronic content access and libraries at the “You Mean Libraries Will Be Able to Deliver Electronic Content Better Than iTunes and Netflix?” session, held by the Library and Information Technology Association. ALA Connect said 335 people signed up for the event, but there is no way that room held that many folks! We talked about EQUACC, ALA, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, library renewal, the Hathi Trust, the Internet Archive, Harvard’s Digital Public Library of America project, and so much more. The best part? We had about forty minutes for questions and conversation. The audience was amazing, and lots of great connections were made that we all hoped would result in some fine collaborations.

Michael: And now, my voice is scratchy again! So David, what did your investigation of vendor e-book programs turn up? Any highlights?

David: Absolutely! Let’s see, where to start? Well first, just for context, I recently read an article that applies here:

A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project reported that ownership of e-reader devices—like the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony Reader, and Kobo eReader Touch— doubled between November 2010 and May 2011. Now 12 percent of adults over age 18 own one, while 8 percent own a tablet computer like the iPad. . . Welcome to the future of books, where your entire library is as portable as a cellphone.1

Then an April news release from Amazon announced: Customers will be able to borrow Kindle books from over 11,000 local libraries to read on Kindle and free Kindle reading apps; Whispersyncing of notes, highlights, and last page read to work for Kindle library books.2 Amazon Kindle Director Jay Marine said:

We’re doing a little something extra here. . . . Normally, making margin notes in library books is a big no-no. But we’re extending our Whispersync technology so that you can highlight and add margin notes to Kindle books you check out from your local library. Your notes will not show up when the next patron checks out the book. But if you check out the book again, or subsequently buy it, your notes will be there just as you left them, perfectly Whispersynced.3

Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, which is collaborating with Amazon on the project, added, “We are excited to be working with Amazon to offer Kindle Library lending to the millions of customers who read on Kindle and Kindle apps.”4

This was pretty significant news on several levels, as I discovered while talking to vendors. Let’s start with what I uncovered talking with OverDrive folks. The company has overhauled their interface and their service and named it OverDrive WIN. Here are some of the changes they’ve made:

  • They have streamlined the OverDrive product. I didn’t really get to play with it, but it’s supposed to be much easier to use.
  • They’re offering support for Kindles, starting later this year.
  • You’ll have immediate access to the first 10 percent of many ebooks, even if someone else has it checked out. That’s cool.
  • They’ll have patron-driven acquisitions, and a Want it Now feature that goes to online booksellers like Amazon. Just add a library Amazon Affiliates account, and you’ll make a little money every time patrons buy a book for themselves using that link.
  • Some e-books offer simultaneous access, so no waiting in a virtual line for these titles.
  • OverDrive is also working to get e-book titles and links into library catalogs, so there aren’t two different places.

Then there are the folks over at 3M. What? 3M? Why is a company that makes sticky notes and self-checkout machines getting into the e-book business? Weird, right? It might be weird, but they also have an interesting-looking product:5

  • First off, they are making their own 3M-branded e-book reader. It’s pretty basic, but it works, e-ink and all.
  • They also have a variety of apps for mobile devices and computers.
  • 3M is calling their new service the Cloud Library System because ebooks are stored in two places: on the device and on cloud storage systems. This is handy—you can start reading at your PC, then get on the bus and continue reading via your iPhone, for example. You just have to log into your account, which remembers what page you’re on across hardware devices.
  • What doesn’t it work on? The Kindle (though they’re in talks with Amazon to change this). It does work on Nooks and iPads, though.
  • 3M also has some pretty cool touch interface kiosks for e-book discovery.
  • Interestingly enough, they’re using one of my blog posts in their presentations! Cool.

Baker & Taylor has partnered with Blio, a new e-book service.6

Here’s what I know:

  • Blio is a creation of Ray Kurzweil (yes, that Ray Kurzweil) and the National Federation of the Blind. Baker & Taylor partnered with them to provide content.
  • Blio will read out loud to you (I assume by a computer-generated voice) and lets you take notes, highlight text, and so on.
  • Blio’s big selling point is that they are full-color and provide the same graphically rich experience you’d have reading a print book with pictures. But when
    I played with their iPad app at their booth, guess what? The two children’s books I looked at were text-only. Picture Curious George as a text-only book. Not nearly as much fun. I tried to ask their booth people about it, but they were all busy with other folks at the time, so I moved on.

Next up, Freading, is the weirdly named e-book product from Library Ideas, which also offers the Freegal subscription music service. Can I just say that Library Ideas needs to get their web act together? Right now the company has a one-page website that stretches horizontally; sort of odd, if you ask me. The only useful information is an e-mail address. Jim Peterson at Library Ideas told me they plan to have a new, marketing-oriented website up in a few weeks. Much-needed, so good for them.

Freading is an interesting product that’s very different from other models, just like Freegal. It offers patron-driven purchasing of e-books: a patron picks a book, then the library is charged (the library can set a fee cap). Freading uses a “token” metaphor for patron checkout. The patron gets five tokens a week to “spend” on e-books. Popular books might cost more than one token, and less popular books might be just one token each. That’s all the patron gets to use for that week. I’m not convinced patrons will pick up on the token model very fast; we don’t really use tokens for anything else, so I’m not sure how that model will connect with patrons. The library determines the number of tokens their patrons get for the week. Books are checked out for two weeks, and can be renewed once.

Library Ideas is in talks with larger publishers, but right now they already have some smaller publishers on board. I’m glad to see a newer company trying to be innovative in a market that’s growing fast.

David: So there’s our Annual Conference e-book/e-content wrap-up.

Michael: I think David is going to go soak his feet now.

David: And if you need Michael, you’d better e-mail him rather than phoning. He’s drinking tea and resting his voice. See you next time!


  1. Matt Frassica, “For E-Book Devotees, Reading Is a Whole New Experience,” USA Today, July 3, 2011, accessed July 13, 2011, www.usatoday.com/tech
  2. “Amazon to Launch Library Lending for Kindle Books,” Amazon.com news release, accessed July 13, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/4ytgqpc.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. 3M, “E-Book Lending Service,” accessed July 13, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/4xzs4j8.
  6. Keith Kleiner, “Kurzweil’s Blio Finally Launches—Here Is A First Look (FAIL),” Singularity Hub, Sept. 28, 2010, accessed July 13, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/2cfdk8r.