Digital Library 2.0: Continued Expansion of the Universe

More disruption is on the horizon

June 1, 2015

Digital Library 2.0: Continued Expansion of the Universe

Calm has settled over the digital library lending landscape.

What a difference from a few years ago, when the prevailing view was that of a broken system needing some serious attention.

Publishers put forward new, innovative business models; platform providers responded by enhancing their services; and librarians waited patiently (or sometimes not) for access to titles while their patrons did the same.

It all worked out more or less the way these things should. The commercial market adjusted to digital disruption and did so because all parties had a stake in it and, therefore, a vested interest in finding solutions. It got a little noisy, but big change often starts that way.

And now, we find ourselves in a new quiet, with questions about what might come next. One thing is certain: There is no status quo in digital content distribution. Change is sure to come and for quite some time. But having settled the primary issue of full access to the catalogs of trade publishers, what comes next should be a calmer, mutual process of steady innovation (see “ALA’s DCWG, Ebooks, and Directions” by Carolyn Anthony).

One of the most interesting conditions of the current market is the diversity of terms under which content is distributed. It’s procured with download limits, various time limits, in perpetuity, and as library databases with multiuser access rights, all with a wide range of attendant pricing. I’ve heard from librarians that it can be bewildering navigating the various rights across publishers in order to effectively manage their collections. But it’s doubtful that there will be any sort of contraction or favor given to any single set of terms. Diversity is not only here to stay, but it will likely increase.

It turns out that neither the library market nor publishers’ catalogs are homogeneous entities. Public libraries spearheaded the access issue, and so the first models to emerge were designed for them. But public libraries are only one type in a disparate set of institutions with different missions.

One thing is certain: There is no status quo in digital content distribution. Change is sure to come and for quite some time.

Publishing houses, too, are just as disparate, with catalogs containing varying degrees of owned content, licensed content, and public domain content, each requiring a different set of custodial responsibilities. And, of course, digital media is slippery and oh-so-flexible. It can be an ebook or a subscription or a stream, a full work of nonfiction or a chunk. It can be read in the library, read on the web, or downloaded from hundreds or thousands of miles away. All this diversity begs for a diverse set of terms in order to fully exploit the distribution potential of content for publishers and fully satisfy the missions of libraries. And, though maximized penetration of content may not always be the end goal (after all, free access rarely means all you can eat anywhere, anytime), sometimes it’s going to matter.

For example, consider the library that limits its purchases to either limited-access content or perpetual-access content. Scarce funding at a small municipal library or a mission requiring perpetual digital copies at a research library can make this choice necessary. Whatever the reason, the current reality is that some titles aren’t purchased for lack of a business model that the library can support. Sometimes that’s fine. But as publishers move further away from the big bang and have more data to analyze, they might decide that some titles need broader library penetration than current models can provide. The data may say that it’s not an either/or question of limited versus perpetual access. Sometimes, on some titles, publishers may want to offer both.

And what about subscription? Library subscription arrangements have been around for a long time. They probably look quite different from the subscription models some publishers are testing in the consumer trade. But the emergence of subscription as part of the general conversation around monetization and distribution is significant and may bleed into publishers’ musings for libraries. It can’t work for all content, but an attractively packaged and valued subscription for wholly owned or branded public domain content (much of which isn’t currently purchased by libraries at all) could bring incremental revenue and ancillary brand marketing benefits.

And then there are variations on limited access. Right now, most models from large trade publishers limit access to no more than a few years (generally speaking). Is there any commercial sensibility for longer-term access? Say five-year, 10-year, or even 20-year access? Or some multiple of downloads greater than 26? Perhaps a download number that can equal the number of students in a given classroom?

The question isn’t hypothetical. Educational disruption is pressing this issue right now. Digital books and learning platforms are going to become important in school libraries and classrooms. And there are a host of use-cases in education that haven’t been contemplated by any of the nascent library models. Things like long-term trade book and textbook adoption may require a guaranteed three-, five-, or seven-year term of access. Conversely, group reading assignments may require short-term access of weeks or months. And what about the generally accepted one-copy, one-user model? It probably won’t make sense in all use-cases in the classroom, so we might as well add to the mix concurrent user access, whiteboard projection, and digital social interactivity. And consider that schools, like libraries, aren’t homogeneous. There will be plenty of individuality in the needs of classrooms from school to school, city to city, state to state. And all of that disparity will give rise to a supply chain service made up of players with various capabilities, providing services that are far from homogeneous.

Education is going to drive the next wave of content and distribution innovation for institutional consumption, requiring additional flexibility from suppliers. And since maximized penetration in this market is going to be important for many publishers, there’s sure to be a lot of testing and piloting of new opportunities. As the path to market grows more complex, the bewildering array of options will need to be navigated, and there will be no rest for the weary.

But as the market matures, tools will be created to manage the complexities. It won’t happen overnight, and there will be headaches. But it will be worth it, because a flexible, versatile, reliable supply chain creates the greatest enterprise potential. And that potential is key for content providers and libraries to maximize all of the opportunity that their unique relationship promises.