ReadersFirst was born because libraries need to have in-house e-book collections,” explains Rachel Wood of the Arlington Va. Public Library, a member of the Leadership Working Group of ReadersFirst, an international coalition of libraries that have banded together to set down principles, standards and goals for libraries looking to offer digital content to their patrons. “We were backseat passengers as far e-books were concerned,” she said during a conference call with some members of the ReadersFirst Leadership Working Group. “Vendors designed their platforms for their needs rather than for our patrons.”
Since e-books have become prominent, it’s been difficult for libraries to deliver them to their patrons, says Michael Santangelo, electronic resources coordinator at BookOps, the Library Services Center for Brooklyn Public and New York Public Library. “There were new systems, ease of use issues, formats that didn’t work with some devices,” he says. “Libraries needed to come together and share their vision of the digital era. That’s how ReadersFirst was born.”
The ReadersFirst movement (ReadersFirst.org) is focused on addressing the “cumbersome” user experience surrounding e-books and streamlining the experience to improve access and discovery for library patrons. Libraries lacked the technical tools to provide seamless easy-access (across a variety of devices) to e-books and until recently libraries were sparring with publishers over whether to allow digital book lending at all. ReadersFirst is a library-organized movement that’s part instructional—it provides a conceptual overview for library e-book initiates and a scorecard rating for evaluating the best vendors—as well as a call to action in defense of the right of library patrons to have full access to e-books, in the same way they do to physical books.
At the same time, ReadersFirst is focused on making sure that digital vendors, middlemen and publishers understand what libraries and their patrons expect. Since its launch in Fall 2012, more than 290 public libraries representing more than 190 million patrons have signed on as members of the ReadersFirst coalition.
In its early meetings, says Santangelo, the Leadership Working Group of librarians came up with the ReadersFirst’s Four Principles, a list of conceptual baselines for access to digital content that serves to guide organizational goals going forward. The Four Principles assert the right of library patrons to: (1) Search and browse a single comprehensive catalog with all of a library’s offerings at once; (2) Place holds, check-out items, view availability and manage fines; (3) Seamlessly enjoy a variety of e-content; and (4) Download e-books that are compatible with all readers.
By late 2012, the Leadership Working Group had put together technical specifications for delivering e-books and content requirements for their patrons. The group also organized the first vendors roundtable, a meeting that was held at ALA Midwinter in Seattle in January 2013, between librarians and e-book distributors and Integrated Library Systems vendors, firms that license content and supply backend technology to libraries. “We got great feedback,” says Santangelo, “it helped vendors know what libraries wanted.” In the late spring 2013, the ReadersFirst working group put together The ReadersFirst Guide to E-Book Vendors: Giving Librarians More Knowledge to be Effective E-Book Providers, a how-to guide and vendor scorecard for library e-book support, and published the document online as PDF at ReadersFirst.org in January 2014.
“For librarians it provided guidance to the vendors that will provide the most seamless access to content for their patrons; it gives vendors the information on what we want most,” he said. The ReadersFirst Guide may be most notable for its vendor assessment scoring system and the Vendor Product Evaluation Form, a detailed evaluation checklist that the organization has devised to assess the various digital systems, services and features offered to libraries. It details 37 specific service categories, each with a numerical value of either 2.5 or 3 points, on a scoring scale of 1-100 with 100 being best possible score. Among the categories there’s #16: “the ability to place a hold,” #29: “have e-content available in open formats,” or #30: “not required to display e-content through proprietary app.”
While vendors PW spoke with praised the ReadersFirst movement overall, there was a bit of grumbling about the number of service categories they’re expected to address, as well as the seemingly arbitrary handful of companies evaluated—OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, Baker & Taylor Axis 360 were the top scoring vendors—in the initial RF Guide. OverDrive (score: 85) was the highest rated vendor in a scoring system that especially rewards vendors that offer application programming interfaces (an API is a series of digital permissions and procedures that allow outside developers to easily access proprietary content feeds).
Santangelo says the initial evaluations were focused on companies “whose products we were most familiar with.” But he emphasizes that “we will look to assess new vendors and new products for inclusion in future editions.”
Michael Blackwell of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Ohio, and a member of the Leadership Working Group, points to another strategic goal of the ReadersFirst movement—a focus on the ability of libraries to drive book discoverability and to highlight their role in helping publishers sell books. “We’re advocates for reading, we do bestseller lists in our libraries and on the Web. We want to help publishers create a market for books.”
BiblioBoard is an e-book subscription app and e-publishing platform, looking to offer libraries easy-to-use access to popular e-book content. While the company was not evaluated in the initial RF Guide, BiblioBoard has launched a service called PatronsFirst, an e-book content program specifically designed to provide just the kind of services ReadersFirst is looking for. BiblioBoard has a deal with the Massachusetts Library System to launch a pilot program that will supply 51 public libraries in the state with e-lending access to 30,000 e-books and other digital content.
“They used the ReadersFirst principles as a guide and what we’ve built with our service is what they want,” says Mitch Davis, BiblioBoard chief business officer. He emphasized that ReadersFirst is “an evolutionary step for libraries. It’s a recognition that they are competing with rich private media companies in the digital world.”
OverDrive CEO Steve Potash was quick to point out which vendor had the highest score. But he also notes that the goals of ReadersFirst are “not new,” at least to OverDrive. “When we launched our e-book services 10 years ago we first went to librarians and asked them what do we need to do to integrate into your backend support,” he explains. OverDrive supports virtually every item on the ReadersFirst list, Potash notes, pointing to “a prolific development portal for libraries,” on the OverDrive Web site, as well as more than a dozen APIs that let librarians search for titles, make loans, place books on hold, “or buy it, right there,” he said. And he says, this is true for digital or print. “We’re moving on the proliferation of mobile access, now,” Potash says.
Santangelo says the ReadersFirst project is just beginning. ReadersFirst is getting feedback now on “where we need to go next,” and suggested API standards was one subject they will likely examine.
“Libraries can draw people to consumer books,” he says returning to the role of libraries in discoverability and in support of publishers and authors. “Discovery is better when library systems are better. And when patrons use more books, we buy more books.”