Initiative aims for easier e-book access at public libraries

Monday, July 2, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:02 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 2, 2012

COLUMBIA —The demand for digital media at the Daniel Boone Regional Library is higher than ever.

Although it is simple now, the checkout process could become more difficult as the library's collection of e-books and downloadable audiobooks grows. A solution for this potential problem is under way.

The first six months of 2012 saw 49,809 e-book and downloadable audiobook checkouts at Daniel Boone — more than double the 22,559 checkouts between January and May of 2011, according to Mitzi St. John, public relations manager of the library system that includes the Columbia Public Library.

"Our e-book collection rotates through a lot," St. John said. "We've definitely seen growth in the checkout of the digital media that we offer."

Officials at the New York Public Library believe digital media is too difficult for library users around the country to access because checking out e-books must be done on third-party websites.

To combat this, the New York Public Library started the ReadersFirst Initiative, a movement aimed at improving the accessibility of e-books in public libraries.

According to the initiative's website, "... the products currently offered by e-content distributors, the middlemen from whom libraries buy e-books, create a fragmented, disjointed and cumbersome user experience."

Micah May, director of strategy for the New York Public Library, said library catalogs are unable to be the sole hub for e-book checkouts. May said there are two reasons this creates the difficult user experience the initiative is fighting.

The first, he said, is that if someone wants to check out an e-book, he or she must find it in the library's catalog, then go to the website of the book's e-content distributor. There, patrons may have to complete up to seven steps before actually being able to check out the book.

The second cause of difficulty is that distributors don't share websites, so users may have to go to multiple sites if they want books from different distributors. May likened this situation to being forced to go to more than one library to check out books.

"This is really limiting our ability to serve our patrons with e-books," May said.

The problem does not affect the Daniel Boone Regional Library's 25,898 e-books and downloadable audiobooks as much as larger library systems. That's because only one e-content distributor — OverDrive — provides digital media to the local library system.

If in the future, though, if the library buys from more than one vendor, patrons may find the checkout process more difficult. Therefore, the library system joined 133 other systems in the United States and Canada on Wednesday in support of the ReadersFirst Initiative.

Michael Lovett, public relations and social media specialist at OverDrive, said the issues raised by the initiative are ones the company has been pursuing.

Lovett said OverDrive is not fighting the initiative, but is "working toward the same goals" as the ReadersFirst Initiative.

"We want to help libraries integrate the content on their sites," Lovett said.

One way OverDrive plans to do that is with the use of application programming interfaces, or API's. Lovett said API's will enable libraries to integrate OverDrive's content with their own catalogs, allowing e-book checkouts to be completed on the library's website.

The OverDrive Developer Portal, which will allow access to the API's, is set to launch in July, along with the first set of API's. The process of applying for access to the portal will begin when the portal opens, Lovett said.

Pat Kopp, technical services manager of Daniel Boone who worked with the library administration to sign onto the initiative, said the library system is aware of this "possible solution," but will wait to see whether it will "allow us to provide services to our patrons in the way we want to."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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