Meeting Digital Challenges

Academic, public, and school librarians adapt to digital lending with OverDrive

January 23, 2021

Julia Gelfand, Shannon Lichty, Sarah Sansbury, and Amber Seely

“During this pandemic, I’ve found that a lot of students want to reread and reread their favorite books,” said Sarah Sansbury, teacher–librarian at Dekalb County (Ga.) Public Schools, during the 2021 ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits Virtual. “It’s been very comforting for them.” However, with Sansbury’s school library closed, the avenues for getting those books into students’ hands are limited. “Ebooks are really the main thing that has been sustaining my readership,” she said.

Last year saw unprecedented increases in digital lending. Digital collections aren’t new to libraries, but coronavirus precautions have led many library users to try out ebooks, digital audiobooks, and other online offerings for the first time. Shannon Lichty, vice president of partner services for OverDrive, moderated a panel of academic, public, and school librarians in discussion about how they’ve grown their engagement in the past year as a part of their spotlight session, “Fortify Your Catalog for the Next Digital Content Challenge.”

Amber Seely, division director of collections and technical services at Harris County (Tex.) Public Library (HCPL), has seen her library’s digital borrowing explode—from about 25% of circulation before the pandemic began to nearly two-thirds today. This increase in engagement has led to budget adjustments as well. While it’s “very, very scary for a library of our size,” HCPL has begun adding titles using the cost-per-circ (CPC) model. Ultimately, Seely said, it’s saving the library money because fewer copies need to be purchased to meet their required ratio of holds to available books.

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has created greater pressure to do more with less across the board. “The need to stretch our access was paramount, and OverDrive helped us achieve those goals,” said Julia Gelfand, applied sciences and engineering librarian at University of California Irvine. “Film and video requests were huge, causing an increased cost for more streaming rights.” Issues with lending terms and user models for concurrent access have affected her library more acutely than most public libraries, particularly because many existing digital content platforms aren’t designed to serve universities on the academic quarter system.

Similarly, “pretty much all of what I buy this year is going to be digital,” said Sansbury. In addition to shifting her existing budget to digital resources, Sansbury has also asked local businesses to donate to a community collection for students called “Everything Will Be Okay,” a community catchphrase. OverDrive’s Sora platform’s collection feature allows her to highlight hopeful titles and thank the businesses that have helped sponsor it, “getting some spotlight on them for supporting our school.”

Sora has also helped HCPL broaden its reach and strengthen its relationship with schools in the Houston area. Just a few weeks before pandemic lockdowns went into place, HCPL launched its first Sora partnership, allowing students to borrow books through the library using their school credentials. In part because of that timing, “we were able to get media coverage to help students and parents know these resources were available to them,” Seely said. Now HCPL has 13 active partnerships, serving more than 200,000 students across Harris County.

The lesson she draws from this is “we all need to be relevant and timely.” In the wake of social justice protests during the summer, HCPL was able to use OverDrive’s curation feature to offer a Read Against Racism collection, which received positive customer feedback and was helpful in fostering community conversations.

The pandemic has brought about a lot of changes and shed light on new ways of thinking and adapting that Gelfand is hopeful will only strengthen the library. “These were all stressors but also new opportunities for us,” said Gelfand. “What kind of campus we will return to is unclear, but the role of the library has never been more visible.”


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