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e-books@Queens Library: present and future

by Stuart A. Rosenthal

Coordinator of Cataloging, Queens Library

e-books@QueensLibrary: present and future

The e-book collections at Queens Library include titles in English and Russian, and we are very proud to be the first public library in the United States to offer e-books in Chinese. Our English language e-books are mainly reference materials; including such categories as careers, computers and finance; while our Chinese collection is primarily popular fiction, and our Russian collection, classical fiction.

Much has been said of late of the demise of e-books; the most notable having appeared in the New York Times last August. And if we take that report at face value, along with reason number seven of Esquire magazine’s “43 reasons to be optimistic about 2002”, it certainly would seem to be true. Personally, I’m not convinced. I believe, that there is room for e-books; both commercially and in libraries; and that the best is yet to come.

Before we look at some of the major portions of our implementation plan, let’s set the record straight. First of all, Queens Library was not the 1st major public library system in New York City to offer e-books; although perhaps it should have been. And the reason it should have been is because we consider ourselves to be at the cutting-edge of library technology and when reasonable, do not hesitate to provide new and exciting services to our customer base. Eventually, we decided to select netLibrary as our web-based, English language e-book provider. “Why a web-based service”? you might ask. Why not go with one of the hand-held devices that allow you to download text and circulate the reader? Well, we gave this lots of thought. In fact, we ordered a reader and downloaded some titles from Barnes and Noble.com. We even created a MARC record for the reader and decided on circulation parameters. But at the end, we decided against it. Why? Well I think one of the main reasons was when the reader accidentally fell from my desk to the carpeted floor below and broke. The other was that we really didn’t feel comfortable circulating a piece of hardware; especially at more than $200.00 apiece. Nevertheless, there are libraries that have decided to circulate readers so I guess it’s a personal decision. Anyway, we decided to go with the popular web-based service called netLibrary which allows users to check-out and read books online using any internet-capable PC.

In order to access the Queens Library collection, our customers were required to register on Queens Library PC’s. This was why we had to provide netLibrary with a file of all our ip adressess. Once this was done, netlibrary immediately recognized the registrant as a Queens Library customer and provided him or her with the Queens Library collection from any internet-connected pc. Before the service was enabled however, we had to provide a methodology for our customers to easily connect to netLibrary so we placed hyperlinks on our homepage, FAQ and survey.

During the time the links were being constructed, the process of collection development was going on. Instead of opting for the more expensive, pre-selected collection offered by Nylink, our regional OCLC network, we decided to do our own purchasing. We did this for a number of reasons: First, the canned collection was very expensive; containing thousands of titles. But we weren’t looking to overwhelm our customers; we wanted to experiment with a small collection. Secondly, the canned collection was shared with over 100 participating sites meaning our customers could be competing with many other users for access to the same title.

In order to make sure we were serving our customers effectively, we generated a survey that posed questions like how they found out about our e-books, whether they had any difficulties using netLibrary and what types of materials they were likely to consult on e-books in the future. And I think we got some good direction from their response.

About one month before the service was rolled-out, we conducted local training using the “train-the trainer” technique. This method relies on instructing a certain number of selected resource people who then teach other staff to explain the service to customers, assist them with registration and respond to their questions.

Of course, no new service is complete without a FAQ page, so we made sure that a sufficient number of common questions and answers were available online to better assist our customers in using the new modality.

And last but not least was publicity. If your customers don’t know you have something new, they certainly won’t use it. So I asked our Public Relations Department to generate a press release and create and disseminate flyers and bookmarks to all our agencies. Another form of marketing that was instituted was the MARC record. Although not generally known as a marketing tool, a MARC record with a hyperlink to an e-book can be a great way to get customers acquainted with the service. And indeed a significant number of respondents to our customer survey reported having learned of e-books through the MARC records in our OPAC.

Since our Chinese e-book is also web based, we basically followed the same implementation formula as we did with netLibrary. Only this time, all the help-screens, training and PR work was in Chinese. We also produced a user-manual, totally in Chinese. Another major difference in the services relates to circulation. Netlibrary offers a locally defined checkout period for each customer. We decided to circulate our English language e-books for seventy-two hours, but with Chinese e-books, there is no circulation period; you can read as long as you want. And simultaneous access to the same title is provided as well.

So what about that prediction in Esquire and the dooms-day article in the New York Times that portended the demise of e-books? Well number one, I don’t always accept what the media prints at face value. And secondly, I’ve compiled some interesting facts that may shed some light on the situation.

Did the e-book revolution sputter because of the recession? Is that why netLibrary eventually went under? I think the recession did play a role. I also think it had to do with the inability to get publishers to agree to digitize their frontlist; although I have heard that progress is being made here. Yet, OCLC decided to absorb netLibrary. Why would anyone take on a business that has no future? Here’s a quote from OCLC CEO, Jay Jordan: “Electronic books and other forms of electronic content are quickly becoming strategic drivers in the sharing and advancement of knowledge in the digital age. E-books complement our growing e-journal collection and provide exciting new synergies for our cataloging, resource sharing, reference and digital preservation services.” Now to me, that sounds like an endorsement; not a eulogy.

Was the arrival of e-books premature? Perhaps the reading public was not yet ready for this new technology. Here, I think it depends on whom you define as the public. If you define the public as those who read bestsellers, it probably was premature. But if you were a publisher targeting reference manuals and educational materials it definitely was not. Consider this quote by Mark Gross, President of the Data Conversion Laboratory here in Queens: “e-books were going strong before they were called e-books. For example, print law books are practically gone. People don't use them anymore. It’s all electronic books or online”. And in the Education Life supplement of the New York Times of January 13th, it was reported that the University of Phoenix is planing to phase out traditional textbooks. Instead, students will download digital textbooks, multimedia simulations, and powerpoint presentations onto PC’s and e-book readers.

Interestingly enough, reports from the recently held NIST e-book conference proclaimed that one of the biggest selling e-books is a guide to getting the best deal when buying a car entitled “Car secrets revealed”, by Corey Rudl. Even though it was introduced in 1994, it remains the number one best-selling car book on the internet. And finally, in the past year, 1600 titles were downloaded more than 3.1 million times from the e-text library at the University of Virginia. That equals an incredible 8,715 e-books per day.

Today, and especially with the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, librarians are committed to providing equal service to disabled customers. Consider this quote from Mr. Thomas Alford, Deputy Director for Customer Services at Queens Library upon the roll-out of netLibrary last June: “e-books may also help serve customers who have difficulty coming into the library in person, such as the homebound”. And the visually impaired really stand to gain from e-books once the Open eBook format is implemented as a defacto standard. The Open e-book format will allow 3rd party software to adjust the text’s font from 4 points to 144 points.

Finally, let’s speculate on what e-books might look like in the future. I believe we will soon have multimedia e-books. Imagine a youngster reading an e-book about whales and then pressing a link to get a video-clip of whales during their migration, or an audio-clip of the whistles they make to communicate with each other, or even having the text read to him if his eyes get tired. In my opinion, this could be the ultimate learning tool.

So yes, e-books have had a rocky start, but I believe the future is looking good. And with a little marketing, your customers can sample and enjoy digitized books. Our statistics show an unprecedented demand for library services since 9/11; especially during non-traditional hours. e-books and other electronic resources can go a long way in meeting your customers’ changing expectations. And to get the very latest information on e-books, please consider visiting openebook.com for 1 week beginning April 22nd. This site, sponsored by an international association of publishers and digital publishing vendors known as the Open E-Book Forum, will provide faq’s for libraries, consumers, disabled readers, youth groups and teachers.

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