Washington D.C. Public Library Case Study
Washington DC’s 37% rate of functional adult illiteracy reflects one of the most underfunded and underutilized library systems in the country. In 2004, former DC Mayor Anthony Williams launched a task force in 2004 to examine the DC Public Library (DCPL). In November 2006 the Mayor’s Task Force Report was released, envisioning that:
“Revitalized libraries will offer fresh collections of current books and media, useful standard publications, multilingual materials, GED and SAT practice books, historic documents and records, pertinent online databases, and digital content.”
Unfortunately, listing digital content last is symbolic of the vision for DC libraries. In the 370 page Technical Report, e-books are mentioned only seven times in reference to the future of DCPL collections. Here some of the few excerpts that lay out technology vision for the DCPL in 2010 and beyond:
“[Page 21]: The library should license digital content and make it available to registered borrowers whether they are in the library or using the collection from their home. E-books, digital audiobooks, videos-on-demand, and other digital content should be available for downloading to a customer’s personal computer, PDA,or MP3 player. …
[Page 60]: A ‘virtual branch’ is fast becoming a necessary facility for successful public libraries serving large populations. … A virtual branch can be a full-service location for searching licensed electronic databases, getting answers through an interactive reference service, downloading digital books and audiovisual content, using learning software, and participating in online programs such as presentations and discussions about books and topics of current interest. Also, items in the library’s physical collections can be reserved and, when available, shipped to the user – with any fees charged to the user’s account or credit card.”
It all sounds pretty high tech until you hit on idea of shipping books around the city. In any case, if you’ve lived in DC for long, the vision of a virtual branch probably sounds like science fiction. In fact, the 2010 vision for the DCPL is based on technology that has been used in public libraries around the country for years.
Playing Catch Up
Several companies including NetLibrary, Overdrive, and Ebrary already have partnerships with public libraries around the world. All three offer a system for libraries to purchase e-books and popular audio book titles, though the technology is not cheap. NetLibrary has a rather shocking price structure. According to LibraryJournal.com:
“NetLibrary… now with more than 100,000 titles, has maintained its one book–one user access model. The company offers two primary purchase models based on title-by-title selection: libraries can subscribe to an ebook by paying the list price of the book, plus an annual access fee of 15 percent of the list price, or libraries can ‘own’ an ebook by paying the list price plus a one-time access fee of 55 percent of the list price.”
Unfortunately, the lack of a significant discount for subscriptions will encourage libraries to purchase e-books. If the library purchases a title, e-catalogs lose many of the advantages of digitization. For example, if econo-star Steven Levitt is heading to Seattle to talk about Freakonomics and 100 people want to read his e-book at the same time, they’ll have to wait. The King County Library System can only lend out 5 of his e-books at a time. E-books are made of 1s an 0s, not hardwoods and glue, so why not simply pay the publisher every time the virtual book is checked out?
Although the NetLibrary subscription model is extortionary, subscription e-books are the ideal model for libraries. E-books require few human resources: three weeks after you check out an e-book, it is automatically “returns” itself to the library by deleting itself (spooky, eh?). A subscription service ensures that libraries pay publishers only when e-books are checked out, so no dollars are wasted on lonely, unread books sitting on dusty shelves. Best of all, 10 of your best friends can check out a copy of the e-book at the same time, eliminating excuses in your book club.
While a subscription service might seem to favor the publishers of bestsellers, it also provides increased exposure to authors of obscure or out-of print books – the so-called long tail. If libraries pay only when e-books are loaned, then there is no reason to limit the size of their virtual catalog. A proper e-book subscription service that costs a public library no upfront fees also reduces guesswork in collections management, enabling a smooth transition in budgeting for a dedicated e-library.
Leapfrog: DC Should Pursue the First True Virtual Public Library System
DC Public Libraries suffer from several problems that make them an ideal test case for launching a real virtual library: huge deferred maintenance costs, an aging central library, and a population disillusioned by years of neglect to local libraries.
DCPL is too far behind the technology curve to play catch up. Instead they should leapfrog technologies. Statastic proposes that new DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and DCPL Director Ginnie Cooper consider a bold experiment in virtual collections.
The DCPL should start phasing out the acquisition of new paper books in 2008, with the goal of e-books making up no less than 90% of new acquisitions 2013. By 2017, the DCPL should have digitized 90% of its existing collection and sold the millions of hardback books in its stacks to help generate revenue. This will reduce required square footage – and overhead costs – of neighborhood libraries, eliminate the frustration of missing books, and create more space for the computer terminals that are sorely lacking.
Advantages to the DC Virtual Library
One of the most obvious advantages to a virtual library is the 24-hour access to books that might otherwise be checked out or unavailable. It could also expand the size of the DCPL available collection from 2.7 million volumes to as many as 32 million – every title in the WorldCat system. More titles mean more attention from residents, which increases reading and circulation.
In a city with 17% of its residents and 30% of its children living in poverty, it might seem that DC is not well-suited for e-books. After all, how would someone living in poverty afford a $300 e-reader? And how would they download a book with access to the Internet? Statastic expects the prices of e-readers featuring e-ink to drop to less than $75 within 5 years (we already have $100 laptops), and less than $40 by 2017.
Under this plan, the DCPL would phase in heavily subsidized or free e-readers for every low income DC resident. Children could also use these e-readers in the public schools where textbooks are in such short supply making it impossible to assign homework from textbooks. And assigning a hot new technology like e-readers to under-privileged citizens might just spark their interest in reading.
With the advent of Google Books, do we need a virtual public library? Many DC residents with their own e-readers and home Internet access will soon have access to millions of Google e-books. But the digital divide is real and if public libraries aren’t centrally involved in digitization of books, the gap will widen. As the high-income, early adopters turn toward e-books, wealthy taxpayers might see less value in funding the DC Public Library System (if this is even possible). This would exacerbate already grave funding shortfalls, leaving an underclass with an ignored and outmoded library system.
E-book Public Library Budget
Free e-readers, millions of e-books… sounds expensive, doesn’t it? Actually it could save taxpayers millions of dollars. The DCPL proposed budget for 2007 is $43 million, of which $19 million is for reference and library collection services. Facilities make up another $9.4 million. All three of these categories will have enormous savings if transitioned to an e-books catalog:
- 1. Book Sale: Bound books would be liquidated, with proceeds dedicated to digitizing rare books and subscription to an e-books catalog.
- 2. Deferred Maintenance: Neighborhood libraries that have been already been closed or that suffer from huge deferred maintenance costs would be sold and replaced by an increased number of smaller, leaner e-libraries that offer better neighborhood access to computer workstations, distribution of e-reader and training and reading programs. Neighborhoods with little Internet access would be served by DCPL e-book kiosks (more on this below).
- 3. Staff reductions: With fewer books to re-shelve and a 24 hour virtual library online, collections and maintenance staff could be reduced. As D.C. Library Renaissance Project Director Robin Diener recently commented: “We have evidence of incredible abuses — people who work for [the library] and draw a salary and rarely come to work. It’s a no-work culture.”
- 4. Private Partners: The DCPL should pursue technology partners such as Google or Yahoo which will be naturally be drawn to the cutting edge, high-profile project of digitizing the library system of the nation’s capital.
- 5. Private & Public Grants: The DCPL’s innovative virtual library experiment will also attract attention from major donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as federal grants.
By 2017 when the DC Virtual Library System is in place, there will be some new expenses (2007 dollars):
- 1. New Staff: Tech savvy staff capable of managing a virtual catalog and training patrons on the use of e-books, e-readers, and online catalogs. The new, more expensive staff hired will be offset by staff reductions due to reduced maintenance and collections services (e.g. re-shelving). Reference librarians will still be necessary, though they may take on new roles dispensing valuable advice through online forums. It’s even easy to imagine 24 hour access to an online librarian.
- 2. Subsidized E-readers: Assume that students would be issued e-readers at school. The DCPL would purchase e-readers for any adult with a household income of less than $35,000 per year. Nearly one-third, or about 184,000, DC residents would qualify for free e-readers. If new e-readers are issued every 2 years and the price of e-readers averages $40 in 2017 (it is more likely to be about $15 to $20), it would cost the city about $3.7 million annually to supply free e-readers. Other ways to help defray these costs are to require a deposit or small co-payments from those above the poverty line.
- 3. E-book Subscriptions: Circulation in all DC public libraries is about 1.1 million books. If the DCPL can reach a circulation rate similar to Seattle’s, residents would be checking out 6 million e-books per year, or about 1 book per month for every reading-age citizen. If the DCPL cut a deal with publishers to pay $2 for every book checked out from its libraries, it would cost the DCPL $12 million per year to maintain its e-book collection.
- 4. E-book Kiosks: For residents in neighborhoods with limited home Internet access, DCPL could provide e-book kiosks near public areas like schools or community centers. Pre-distributed e-readers would have RFID technology that identifies the DCPL account. The customer would simply touch the e-reader to kisok to log in. After selecting a title, the user holds the e-reader next to the kiosk for a free wireless download of the e-book. Installation and maintenance could be covered by corporate advertising on the outside of the kiosk.
The total new expenses of subsidized e-readers plus e-book subscriptions is equal to about $15.6 million. Compare this to the $19 million being spent on collections and references this year alone.
It’s important to remember that not all books, documents and historical will be digitized, so there will be still be a need for a central library, whether it is the renovated Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in downtown DC or the new one proposed by the DC Mayor. Either of the central library proposals are would cost about $275 million according to city estimates. Statastic doesn’t prefer one proposal over another, but it is imperative to rethink the needs of a central library with e-books as the heart of the collection.
Unknowns and Opportunities
There are two unknowns in creating the world’s first truly digital library: 1) are publishers willing to negotiate lower e-books subscription rates, and 2) will the DCPL create its own e-book collection or outsource it?
One major pre-condition for this proposal to succeed is that subscription e-book prices must be negotiated downward. Publishers and authors must be made to understand that low-priced e-book “rentals” in public libraries will increase readership. Publishers will sell higher volumes of e-books, and they can count on a reliable revenue stream.
It is not cost effective for the DCPL to digitize its collection from scratch. Google has already inserted themselves into the e-book value chain and Google is far and away the leader in the number of titles digitized. In fact, Google may be the only corporate partner for creating a virtual public library. According to Jeffrey Toobin in this week’s New Yorker, because of publishers’ lawsuits against Google, they might be the last company to digitize the world’s books:
Google’s advantage may well be cemented if the company settles its lawsuits with the publishers and authors. … [Lawrence Lessig , Professor at Stanford Law School said], “The publishers will get more than the law entitles them to, because Google needs to get this case behind it. And the settlement will create a huge barrier for any new entrants in this field.”
Google will complete digitization of the 6 million books at the University of Michigan by 2010 – the same target year for the DCPL’s modernization. The DCPL should approach Google immediately to negotiate a partnership for the DC Virtual Library.
Are DC residents feeling lucky?