We’ve heard a lot about the progress libraries have made in the e-book realm. But the underlying story of public libraries and e-books remains nettlesome: research shows that most people still do not know that libraries lend e-books, that the lending infrastructure itself remains fractured and restrictive, and that the content is mostly licensed—not owned—and is often costly. As a result, there has been growing concern that public libraries are losing ground to more consumer-friendly private companies eager to become the exclusive e-book providers of the future.

Just last month, for example, the subscription services Oyster and Scribd announced that they will offer Simon & Schuster’s entire backlist (over 10,000 titles), along with titles already on offer from HarperCollins and a growing number of indie presses. Such developments are at once exciting and unsettling for public library administrators, who can’t help but question their future in such a digital world.

In response, some libraries have leaned on their traditional strengths—collections and resource sharing—to create new opportunities in the library market. Most famously, the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries pioneered its own e-book platform. And in the same vein, the Arizona State Library this month signed an agreement with South Carolina–based BiblioLabs to offer a new service called Reading Arizona.

Arizona State librarian Joan Clark said that the project drew its inspiration from the Douglas County Libraries platform, and like that platform, is a direct response to the pronounced shift toward the consumption of digital products. “More libraries are beginning to develop projects like this, where they have their own platforms, select their own content outside of the usual third-party vendors, and find innovative ways to bring content to patrons,” she says. “Reading Arizona will not only provide relevant e-books to its patrons—it will contribute to a national conversation about how libraries can best meet growing demand for e-content.”

Beyond Bestsellers

Powered by BiblioBoard (BibioLabs’ multimedia content delivery platform), Reading Arizona will offer Arizona-related e-books and other materials via the state library’s website starting in August, and eventually via local libraries in the state. The program will use geolocation to allow registration from within Arizona; thus, no library card will be required. All of the content will be available for unlimited, multiuser access, and patrons will be able to have up to three books at a time on offline bookshelves.

The collection guidelines include everything from fiction, history, and travel guides to public domain books and manuscripts stored in archives around the state. Resources from other cultural institutions and libraries, such as the Amerind Museum and Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library, will also be included. In addition, the project will have a self-publishing portal.

Mitchell Davis, the founder and chief business officer of BiblioLabs, says it is significant that the program aligns with the library’s mission: to preserve and promote Arizona history. “They are not trying to provide bestsellers free to everyone in the state,” he says. “Rather, they are providing access to books that are much more difficult to discover and, sometimes, to obtain.”

Davis has long been invested in finding ways to offer alternative paths to content. He is the founder of BookSurge, which was acquired by Amazon in 2005 and eventually became CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing platform. And, in 2007, he launched BiblioLabs, which now has projects similar to Reading Arizona up and running in Massachusetts (MA eBook Project) and North Carolina (NC Live).

Clark says that BiblioLabs is an attractive partner, presenting a powerful platform for hosting statewide e-content, for “a reasonable” annual fee. “We had initially envisioned building our own platform and acquiring content ourselves, but partnering with BiblioLabs provides us with an experienced information technology team, content acquisition, and marketing professionals at a much lower cost.”

The agreement with BiblioLabs is confidential, but state library officials say they have committed to spend $50,000 on content in the first 18 months. In addition, while self-published authors included in the project retain the rights to their works, the library, for the most part, owns the items they collect for the program and can move the collection to a different vendor platform, if they one day choose to do so.

Massachusetts and North Carolina had similar motives for working with BiblioLabs, Davis says. By partnering with the company, libraries can spend less time trying to play technological catch up and focus more on what they do best. “We allow them to provide their content on a cutting-edge platform, and they don’t have to create and maintain their own e-book infrastructure,” Davis notes. “Most libraries cannot absorb these costs and provide solutions that compete with the user experiences that readers are accustomed to from the likes of Apple, Amazon, and Google.” Davis says his company invested over $8 million in platform development over the two years leading up to its 2013 launch.

Clark says that it was also important for the library to provide a platform for self-published works that could draw on experts in local communities. “Many libraries are beginning to assume a library-as-publisher role, and, with the coming release of BiblioLabs’ self-publishing module, it seemed like an appropriate addition,” she explains. “We want content about Arizona that is relevant to Arizonans, so it makes sense to invite authors to share how they interpret the landscape.”

As part of the project, the Arizona State Library is also reaching out to large commercial and academic publishers to acquire content, Clark says, as well as negotiating with local publishers, like Scottsdale-based Poisoned Pen Press. State librarians have also provided BiblioLabs with a list of desired titles that the company is working to include in the project. In addition to providing hosting, BiblioLabs has its own collection of content (about 125,000 e-books and five million pages of curated content), which is offered to libraries in modules that they can subscribe to on a multiuser, simultaneous-access basis.

Changing the Game

It may not be a commercial blockbuster, but Davis says projects like Reading Arizona matter—in part, because they show publishers that libraries will spend money to support viable alternatives to the dominant e-book regime.

“Today’s library e-book models strive to imitate the print world to the point of absurdity, with hold lists and checkout periods for digital items,” Davis says, adding that the protections that publishers and e-book vendors use to “ensure against cannibalization of the consumer revenue stream” for their frontlist titles make it very difficult for libraries to offer a decent user experience.

“If libraries move away from bestsellers and focus on those e-books and collections that offer other value, they can foster different business models that lend themselves to creating an excellent user experience and don’t penalize them for being successful at promoting individual books,” Davis says. “But if libraries say they want one business model, yet spend their money on another model, the model where they spend their money is the one that will survive and thrive.”