The challenge of working in a digital environment is that the old analog methods of managing data don’t work. Where once users were content to wait for access to materials, now they expect everything to be instant and online. This doesn’t mean that libraries have become redundant, in fact, the polar opposite is true. Library usage has actually increased over the last few years with library usage in South Dublin up by 25% according to the 2012 budget plan on their website. However it does mean that the way in which users access material must be reviewed and updated to reflect the new realities.
So in this brave new world, how can systems be designed in the way that best suits users? Strong arguments have been made for a participatory focus methodology – bringing in users as stakeholders at the beginning of the design process and engaging with them throughout to ensure that the end product meets their requirements. For example, bringing medical staff in to participate in the design of a medical database. Participatory design is not just a quick focus group to establish what a user group wants. It is an active ongoing process which allows the users to make changes throughout the development process.
Perhaps multiple stakeholder involvement is exactly what is required in order to allow for the development of new user-friendly library resources. If publishers sat down and engaged directly with librarians and library users about the services they wanted, rather than trying to put the genie back in the bottle and forcing libraries to treat e-books in the same way in which they treat physical books, solutions would emerge which would allow publishers to maintain profitability while providing libraries and their users with the resources and flexibility they want. E-books should not be a limited commodity but publishers are artificially restricting access by putting limits on the number of e-books which can be accessed at any one time. According to an article in the Washington Post these restrictions mean that delays on e-books are often longer than those for physical books. Publishers enforce these restrictions through Digital Rights Management (DRM) controls. Publishers such as Penguin only allow libraries to lend one e-edition at a time and licences must be purchased on an annual basis.
Of course, many publishers will not allow libraries to licence e-books at all but doing so does not solve the problem. Progress will continue and users expect to be able to download e-books and to do so to their own devices. They are not happy to be restricted to using them in the physical library itself, or to have to use it via the library’s website. However, the good news is that some publishers are changing their business models. For example, in January this year, De Arbeiderspers/A W Bruna ( the largest publisher in the Netherlands) removed DRM from its e-books, thereby allowing readers to download the books to any device of their choosing. Penguin are now allowing libraries to offer e-books at the same time at which the hardcovers come out. Previously there had been a six month wait.
If publishers and libraries work together to find solutions to the challenges arising in this new digital age, both can benefit. Libraries can offer services which meet their users actual needs and publishers can continue to generate an income stream. Users will be able to access materials in a manner and format that suits their needs. But doing all of this will require a complete overhaul of the old ways of designing a business model.
Will it happen? Only time will tell.