Aren’t libraries already doing that? by Jessamyn West

Aren’t libraries already doing that? by Jessamyn West

Yes. This. I watched the announcement about the initiative to get ebooks to low-income children and was, unfortunately, nothing but suspicious. There are good entities involved, but I am skeptical about motivation and execution. I had all of these questions proposed by Jessamyn West over on Medium.com. Her post really summed up how I felt about it so I thought I would share it here in its entirety.

Aren’t libraries already doing that?

My questions about the current big plan to “give” ebooks to low income kids

Yesterday’s announcement was exciting. The White House in collaboration with the Digital Public Library of America, The Institute for Museum and Library Services, and New York Public Library will work together with the rest of nation’s libraries to give low income kids better access to digital reading material and get them excited about reading. But are the project’s offered solutions really addressing the real problems and needs of the communities it is trying to reach?

Here are the players. This could have been The Avengers of library collaborations.

  • DPLA will build the Digital Public Library of America Youth collectionand offer access to public domain and in-copyright works to children from low-income families, adding new covers from Recovering the Classics to bring new appeal to old titles.
  • The White House as an extension of its ConnectED initiative will launch the ConnectED Library Challenge to get children from low income families in 30 communities to sign up for library cards. They are also committed to bringing kids from low-income schools thousands of ebooks with an app developed by New York Public Library and support from the “nonprofit social enterprise” FirstBook.
  • FirstBook will identify target populations and screen recipient schools to ensure book delivery to low-income students working from their existing network of 170,000 classrooms and programs. They have an existing extensive and successful print book distribution program.
  • Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is investing $5 million in NYPLs development of an Open eBooks app along with “tools and services” to help the public access $250 million in books donated by major US publishers. They also created a discussion platform for the involved communities to interact with each other.
  • Library Associations such as the American Library Association and the Urban Libraries Council have gotten commitments from library directors, school superintendents and local politicians to spearhead library card programs in the thirty regions targeted by the ConnectEd Library Challenge.

I am curious to see where it goes and interested in what the larger plan is. As with any flurry of overlapping big-talking press releases, there are still some areas that bear further scrutiny and could use more explanation. I work for Open Library. We lend ebooks worldwide for free, to anyone. I know that a project this big has a lot of interlocking parts. I have some questions about how it’s all going to fit together, and what the long-range plans and goals are once the grant money runs out. Here are my questions.

The App

The app being developed by NYPL promises a place where users can “seamlessly browse and read ebook titles on a variety of devices.” I have every confidence in NYPLs ability to build elegant digital tools and I’d love to see a library-created ebook application. However I am curious why we’re developing a “cutting-edge e-reader app” when many similar applications currently exist and are already used for library lending?

What is missing from current e-reader book lending apps? Is the new app going to be available on all platforms? Will it work for people who are print-disabled? Who is offering tech support? Will people need to register to use the app? Will they need an email address to do that? Will their reading lists be tracked? Will the app’s privacy policy be in line with state patron privacy laws? Will the app also help people find print books since surveys are still indicating that print is what many Millennials prefer.

The Target Audience

Providing access to physical resources like print books is straightforward. Giving access to shared technologically-mediated resources is significantly more complex. How do we provide democratic access to content through libraries and schools but still reach the target demographic and provide digital equity?

How does providing digital content via apps serve the hardest to serve when, according to NPR’s All Things Considered “nearly 40 percent of households that earned less than $25,000 a year didn’t have a computer” and less than half had internet access? Even DPLA’s Executive Director Dan Cohen admits we’re still barely at majority smartphone adoption in low-income families. Will lending tablets — tangentially mentioned as part of this project — be enough to span this gap? Apple has said they’re donating $100 million worth of devices, but we don’t know if those are going to libraries as well as schools.

Will the app be for all children but just marketed towards low-income children? How do we get this program’s target audience to the library in the first place when transportation is often cited as a major impediment for low-income people to access their libraries? How will this program work with existing library ebook programs, or existing wifi hotspot lending programs (how are those going anyhow)? FirstBook has impressive statistics backing up its print book program. Is there any research that indicates that the lack of a good reading app and tablet computers is what is inhibiting the reading progress and literacy of low-income children? How will this program be assessed to ensure that it’s meeting its stated goals?

The Publishers

Publisher anxiety about offering up free digital content is understandable and yet the largest dollar amounts promoted in this program are for content supposedly being donated. What does it mean to “donate” ebooks?

Do publishers get tax writeoffs for the donations of thousands of digital copies of their titles to this non-profit project? What about overlap with titles libraries have already purchased? Will the project work with publishers to help make library patron access to ebooks in general a more pleasant and straightforward process? Does “unlimited access” really mean no Digital Rights Management or other technological limitations on accessing the donated content? Who will own these titles and what are the licensing terms? Will the content remain available to libraries and readers after the three year program period has ended?

Is anyone curating this collection to ensure that it’s balanced and appropriate for the target audience? We’re told that “Librarians will work with publishers to create recommendation and suggestion lists.” How is this different from what libraries are already doing?

The Libraries

We like to be part of these projects. Yet sometimes it seems that people are trading on the good name of libraries without actually providing material support to our infrastructure needs.

What do people feel isn’t working with libraries’ existing ebook lending programs? According to Paste Magazine, libraries in some communities are “promising to place library cards into the hands of young readers.” Aren’t they already doing this? Why, if this project “leverage(s) the extensive resources of the nation’s 16,500 public libraries to help kids develop a love of reading and discovery” is there no money in this wide-ranging project for the libraries themselves, besides money for broadband?

Who is going to teach digital literacy skills and help people use the app? Is it appropriate to have librarians volunteering for this via DPLA? Why are librarians being managed by DPLA instead of their existing professional organizations? Is there going to be an associated advocacy effort to ensure that school libraries continue to employ trained librarians, since this is one of the biggest threats to youth literacy?

The Ebooks

Ebooks are not as much of a monolithic entity as the name implies. Just saying “ebooks” does not give much information about what is being proposed.

Will these ebooks be in open formats or accessible at all outside of the program app? What about the free ebook/reading projects that have gone before, and still exist?

Open source book readers exist and work well.

Why, with this giant cooperative endeavor, can no one agree on the orthography of the word ebook? Is it eBook, e-book or ebook?


The ebook landscape is challenging both politically and technologically in a way that the print book landscape is not. This project looks like it’s good at addressing some of the pesky political problems surrounding ebooks, but is possibly a bit glib about the technological issues that will be generated by an endeavor of this magnitude.

At Open Library we lend several thousand ebooks every day to a worldwide audience. It’s challenging and requires a lot of hand-holding as well as frequent back and forth discussions with developers, server administrators and program coordinators. Creating and distributing good reading lists isn’t the difficult part of our work. Sharing a love of reading is not a serious hurdle.

Getting the technology to function smoothly and mostly invisibly is where we spend the bulk of our time.

Many of the patrons who email us may have never interacted with an ebookor a library before. The library to them is not just the content but also the people they interact with and the interfaces they have to navigate. Setting your sights on low-income readers is an admirable goal; those people will need help, even with the best-designed apps and the simplest tablets. Plan for it, it’s a part of the project that won’t scale well.

The hardest to serve are often the hardest to serve specifically because they can’t be reached simply with apps and goodwill and a pure heart. If that was all it took, our work would be done already. Libraries have been working at easing the literacy divide, the digital divide, and the empowerment divide for decades if not centuries. No one wants to increase literacy and love of reading more than the public librarians of the world. So I’m excited, but also cautious. We’ve seen a lot of well-meaning projects come and go.

Kids have access to thousands of free books and ebooks from their public libraries right now in the United States. Think of what we could do if we worked together to invest in ebooks and our existing infrastructure instead of building yet another app and hoping that this time the things we promised would come true.

via Aren’t libraries already doing that? — The Message — Medium.

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