MLA Conference, Day One (Wednesday), Part Two

The afternoon sessions at MLA on Wednesday were just as good as the morning sessions. First up after lunch was “Library Services and the Future of the Catalog: Lessons from Recent ILS Upgrades,” with representatives from the Boston Public Library (BPL), the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium (MVLC), UMass Dartmouth, and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC); the first three library systems had recently changed from one ILS (Integrated Library System) to another, and the MBLC had helped MVLC and two other Massachusetts library consortia with the search process and transition.

The speakers explained why their libraries wanted to change from one ILS to another and the decision-making process involved in choosing a new ILS; they also spoke about the process of the change and how it affected users and staff, pointed out some of the differences – good and bad – between old and new systems, and talked about the future of library catalogs. They touched on the differences between open source and proprietary systems: with open source, you need more in-house talent (software developers on staff), but you have more control, as well as access to the open source community; proprietary systems require less technical skill from library staff, as fixing bugs and implementing new features are outsourced.


All library systems experienced some growing pains during the change; in some cases, initial training was good, but follow-up training could have been better. “The old system never looks as good as when you’ve migrated to a new system,” one speaker said somewhat ruefully. “It’s always going to be harder than you think,” said the MVLC representative. However, when asked how they felt three months after migrating to the new system, overall everyone seemed satisfied with their new ILSs, though each had a laundry list of wishes, and much of the reporting seemed based on anecdotal evidence rather than formal evaluation of either staff or patron experiences.

ILStweets2Every ILS has usability issues, and usability testing with patrons would likely identify areas in need of improvement for each ILS; developers don’t always develop with real users in mind. (As Aaron Schmidt pointed out in Library Journal, most library catalogs are designed to prioritize the collection, not the people searching the catalog.)

The last session I attended on Wednesday was “Loaning eReaders to the Public: Legal and Strategic Challenges,” where Anne Silvers Lee and Jamie Wilson from the Free Library of Philadelphia and Melissa Andrews from the Boston Public Library spoke about the lessons they learned in the process of developing programs to circulate e-reading devices: the Free Library lent B&N nooks, and the BPL will be lending iPad minis starting next month.

This was a fascinating session that started off with some startling statistics. E-readers, Ann said, are “not a cutting-edge thing anymore”; forty percent of libraries loan e-readers. Why did the Free Library want to lend e-readers? They considered the digital divide (the gap between those who are familiar with technology and those who don’t use it; in Philly, 41% of the population of 1.5 million does not have internet access at home), patron demand, innovation, and transliteracy.

The library obtained a grant to purchase e-readers and hire part-time staff to help train patrons on how to use the devices. They chose nooks because B&N offers institutional accounts for invoicing and batch wifi delivery of new content; they were also aware that Amazon had already sent out at least one cease-and-desist letter for lending Kindles. Jamie referenced copyright experts Mary Minow and Peter Hirtle of and Cornell University, respectively, whose opinions the Free Library sought to determine the legality of their lending program. He summed up their response as “We’ve looked into this, we think it’s all right,” with Hirtle less sure than Minow (who also included a long list of caveats).


During the Q&A at the end of the session, I suggested that B&N and Apple’s cooperation in helping the libraries set up their devices for lending implied consent, but apparently it’s still a “gray area.” However, Ann said, “If [device manufacturers] don’t want us to do it, [they] better lawyer up.”

ereaders2Jamie explained the Free Library’s system for lending: the program was limited to patrons fifty years of age or older, all of whom had to have a library card and a valid ID. There were steep late fees in place (though fears that the devices would be stolen proved unfounded; none went missing), and all users had to take a training class. All of the nooks circulated from the senior center in the Main Branch, and all were pre-loaded with the same selection of fiction and nonfiction bestsellers and classics. Because they weren’t buying content through a third-party vendor like OverDrive or 3M, they could purchase titles from all “Big 6” publishers.

Results once the program launched were somewhat disappointing, with lower use of the devices than they had anticipated. In response, the library lowered the age requirement for borrowing, expanded the availability to other locations, dropped the training requirement (while providing even more training classes), and eventually repurposed some of the nooks for staff training.

Then, of course, there was the lawsuit: the National Federation for the Blind sued the library because the nooks were not accessible. The lawsuit was resolved, but it stands as a cautionary tale, and the BPL accordingly proceeded with caution when planning their own e-reader lending program. The NFB had sent a letter to the mayor of Boston stating that it was an ADA violation to lend nooks or Kindles; only iPads were appropriately accessible (more than just text-to-speech capability is required for a device to be considered accessible).

The BPL purchased 70 iPad minis with a grant, and worked with Apple to ensure that users’ personal data was protected and that any content a user had added to the device was wiped between checkouts. The iPads are preloaded with 40 high interest titles as well as some apps; they will circulate for two weeks at a time, and patrons will be able to place holds on them through the catalog (though Melissa anticipates long wait times due to their popularity). The iPads will show up in the results list when patrons search the catalog for books that have been preloaded onto the iPads; this is something that the Free Library staff thinks would have boosted circulation of their devices, which only appeared in the catalog if you searched for them by device name.

Overall, this was an informative session. All three speakers were well prepared and articulate, and the learning curve was evident in the changes that the Free Library made to its own lending program as well as how the BPL developed its lending program. As I’ve said before, libraries are all about sharing, and learning from each other’s experiences is one way of doing that. For any library that is considering implementing an e-reader lending program, I’d definitely recommend consulting these folks’ resources.

Next: the Thursday sessions at MLA were also fantastic. Stay tuned for not-so-concise summaries of four more sessions (probably in two parts, probably tomorrow or early next week). The Twitter hashtag war continues, so make sure to check #mla13 and #masslib13 (I was mostly using the latter).

3 thoughts on “MLA Conference, Day One (Wednesday), Part Two

  1. 1) At one point I heard that ALL of MA was eventually moving to Evergreen. Was there mention of other library systems moving to it? I haven’t heard anything recently.

    2) I’m interested to hear that Amazon sent a cease-and-desist to libraries lending Kindles. I keep hearing libraries say that Amazon has actually provided support for them though the policy prohibits lending. This is interesting!

    • As BPL just migrated – and not to Evergreen – I don’t see the whole state going to Evergreen anytime soon, but I could be wrong. I didn’t hear any talk about it.
      As for kindle lending, I’m not sure when the last C&D letter was sent, but it does seem to me that if Amazon is going to help libraries get set up to lend the devices, it would not make a ton of sense for them to turn around and sue the library for violating some unclear lending policy. (Lending e-book files is different from lending pre-loaded devices.) But you never know.

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