A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Accessing Digital Information

by Kevin Watson on December 8, 2017

Guest contributor KELVIN WATSON is Director of Broward County (FL) Library. Contact Kelvin at kelvinwatson@broward.org. Kelvin is currently reading The Invisible Advantage: How to Create a Culture of Innovation by Soren Kaplan, PhD.

For the past three years, the Queens (NY) Library has embarked on a project to radically improve the way library customers discover and access digital content and information resources (which from this point will be referred to as “digital information”). Queens Library invests with a variety of providers to license a rich array of digital information for our customers, but like most libraries, has been forced to rely on a complex set of proprietary interfaces to navigate and deliver them. Only the savviest customers are able to keep track of a large number of separate usernames, passwords, and website URLs. Even when this barrier is crossed, accessing this digital information (or even finding out what is available) requires them to follow links out of the library’s system and over to the digital in- formation provider’s system. These systems are often “walled gardens,” where the digital information provider, not the library, controls the customer’s experience, and it is difficult for the customer to make it back to the library’s site; leaving them in a state of confusion, without the ability to find what they need on the provider’s site. These complexities hinder the customer’s ability to easily discover, engage with, and consume the library’s valuable investments and instead often conclude in frustration and failure.

This situation is particularly problematic for many of the demographic groups that are central to Queens Library’s mission, including people who speak other languages and those in society who lack ready access to digital resources. A number of studies have shown that the complexity of the options that are currently available to library customers make it much more difficult to access library materials and information.

According to one of the recent Pew studies, nearly a quarter of all adults rely on libraries, at least in part, for Internet access.1 The number is higher among minority populations. Nearly a third of all Americans have no Internet access at home. While many are using libraries’ Internet access and computers for job searches, health-care research, and managing interactions with government agencies, those without Internet access and e-book or tablet access are also falling behind in terms of the way more and more content will be consumed in coming years. Recent studies also show that people with access to e-readers read substantially more; they are, in fact, the only demographic for who time spent reading is increasing.

In response to these challenges, Queens Library has created a Virtual Library Initiative, which is a distributed computing system (or “QL Virtual Library”). The QL Virtual Library will provide a best-of-breed technology solution for accessing digital information for all of Queens Library’s customers. This system will eventually allow all Queens’ customers to have seamless access to digital materials all within Queens Library’s own web and mobile interfaces. This system will replace the current unwieldy library models that create today’s barriers to success. Barriers ranging from software that is too complicated for the average person on the street to operate, to disconnected and confusing web portals our users (e.g. seniors and individuals in challenged communities) with little digital experience can’t navigate. The QL Virtual Library System is an “end to end” platform that will help shift the balance of power from creators to consumers.

To clarify, the aim of the QL Virtual Library is primarily threefold, to work towards the elimination of information silos with a “seamless” interface to increase access and deliver to our customers:

  1. one single authentication process and sign-on;
  2. one unified and familiar interface of browse, search, and discovery across channels such as web, mobile, custom machines, and more; and
  3. one single digital reader tool or minimize a need for third party or external reader tools.

The QL Virtual Library will provide great benefits to library customers by bringing multiple resources together into a streamlined one-stop shop for:

  • e-books and audiobooks
  • library programming
  • job searching resources
  • job training resources
  • articles and database research tools

The Virtual Library Initiative will also help Queens Library reach beyond the confines of its physical locations and extend its presence into customers’ homes by providing devices that will let patrons interact more deeply with the library’s offerings. This distributed computing system will keep Queen’s Library’s doors open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, extending the library’s reach to new customers who want to fit libraries into their way of life, but are blocked by their day-to-day scheduling and lack of access to available channels.

A recent study by the Center for an Urban Future argues that libraries must extend their reach both into the digital sphere and into people’s homes.2 That same study notes that libraries play a central role in modern life. Immigrants use the library as a portal into American society. Small businesses get their start in libraries. For the Queens Library to maintain its central place in developing and promoting literacy, it must offer digital information in ways that work for all customers.

Queens Library intends to build the QL Virtual Library for the betterment of all our facilities and customer service delivery, and upgrade any necessary components we currently own or convert them for this use.

The QL Virtual Library will be connected via a virtual private network and have interrelated parts and dependencies for optimum performance across our network of distributed endpoints, transforming these locations into modern multimedia hubs.

The establishment of this system will provide incredible expansive capability and technical equipment systems to the Queens Library System that is struggling to meet the needs of our customers caught in the “digital shift” and the foreseeable future.

Queens Library has successfully piloted aspects of our QL Virtual Library by distributing digital content through customer’s mobile devices and the library’s tablet loaning program, which started in November 2013. We have gained recognition in our attempt to address the library customer’s survival in the age of “digital disruption” across modern business, competitive job markets, and “always connected” lifestyles that demand we meet the challenge with fresh ideas, new ways to learn, and increased digital capacity.

In fall 2016, The National Information Standards Organization (NISO), its members and non-member contributors, Queens Library, and Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS) began embarking on an eighteen-month project to speed the development and deployment of a specification to be used by vendors, publishers, library systems, and libraries that will improve data exchange in support of a variety of customer services related to serving e-content, and to create reference implementations of that specification. The Flexible API Standard for E-content NISO (FASTEN) Project will build upon work in production at the Queens Library and result in a set of at least twelve standard application programming interfaces (APIs) to address areas of login/authentication, patron account information, availability, check-out, statuses and usage for e-books, streaming media, and other digital content. This standard will lead to quicker development times and more seamless integration by and between software parties and content providers, and facilitate better service and digital content delivery to library end users. I look forward to continuing this work at Broward County Library.


  1. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/12/28/internet-access-at-libraries.
  2. http://nycfuture.org/research/branches-of-opportunity.

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