Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bridging the eBook-Library System Divide

Despite what you might have read on the blogs, libraries show no signs of imminent ebook-induced death. The latest data from Overdrive, the dominant provider of eBooks to public libraries, shows staggering growth. Digital checkouts doubled in 2010 to 15 million, looking at Overdrive alone. Based on the buzz at this weekend's American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, Overdrive should blow those numbers away in 2011- It seems that almost every librarian I've talked to here has decide to "take the plunge" into eBooks in a big way in 2011.

The ebook companies focused on academic libraries are experiencing the same growth- Ebook Library told me that for the prior year their monthly sales have been double the prior year. The biggest plunge was taken by Proquest, which announced their acquisition of ebook provider ebrary. (I’ll have a separate story on that later.)

To some extent, most libraries have been only sampling the ebook water, and despite noted usability issues and e-reader device fragmentation, patrons seem to want more and more and librararies are responding to patron demand. But not everyone is happy. One librarian told me, after a few beers, that “Overdrive sucks!” and then went on to use language unsuitable for a family-oriented blog.

As far as I can tell, there are two issues around Overdrive that are troubling libraries. One derives from the DRM system from Adobe that Overdrive uses. Adobe’s system is pretty much the only option for libraries and booksellers other than Amazon and Apple; Overdrive has no choice but to use this system in order to work with reader devices and software from Barnes&Noble, Sony and Kobo. The Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle, in a panel on Saturday morning, slammed the Adobe system, even though it’s used by the Archives OpenLibrary. In OpenLibrary's experience, users were able to complete a lending transaction in only 43% of their attempts. Overdrive is working to improve the smoothness of these transactions, and is introducing new support methods to make the processs easier.

The second issue was discussed by library system vendor executives at Friday’s RMG President’s Panel. According the Polaris Library Systems President Bill Schickling, many of his customers are worried that their libraries will be marginalized by ebook providers like Overdrive.  Although Overdrive offers extensive customization options for their ebook lending interface, libraries are still upset that patrons have to use separate interfaces for books and ebooks, one provided by Overdrive and the other provided by their ILS vendor. Libraries often think of the library system as their primary "brand extension" on the internet.

It seems a bit odd that this should be an issue. For years, libraries have lived with databases and electronic journals delivered from separate systems. But books are different. Libraries want ebooks and books to live side by side. It makes little sense to force a user who wants to read a Steig Larsson novel  have to check in two places to see print and digital availability.

Overdrive is working overtime to address this second issue, it seems. Overdrive's CEO, Steve Potash, told me that his company is working on opening a set of APIs (application programming interfaces) that will allow system vendors, libraries and other developers to more deeply integrate Overdrive's ebook lending systems into other interfaces. Overdrive has needed these interfaces internally to build reading apps for Android, iPod and iPhone. Overdrive hopes to have an iPad-optimized reading app in Apple's iTunes stare by the end of first quarter 2011, and will be working with selected development partners to work out many of the details. Potash hopes Overdrive will be able to unveil the APIs this summer at the ALA meeting in New Orleans.

The Overdrive APIs and the usability improvement they lead to should come as welcome news to libraries and library patrons everywhere. Library system vendors and developers in libraries will have a lot of work to do over the coming year.

And library patrons will be reading a lot of ebooks.


  1. Privacy is another issue with Overdrive. Based on my ongoing experiments with Overdrive, it appears that users need to register for an Adobe ID, and use this for all their transactions if they want to get books onto a portable reader. (I'd like to be proven wrong on this point; please update me!)

  2. As near as I can tell, one does need an Adobe ID to use DRM-restricted ebooks from OverDrive.

  3. At present, you need an Adobe ID to use any content wrapped in ACS- that includes anything sold by BN, Kobo, Copia, or Sony, and in-copyright stuff loaned by OpenLibrary or Overdrive. There are many other users as well- see my article covering the ebook provider in Estonia.

    I've been told this may change in a new version of the Adobe System, but I've not been able to confirm that.