A conversation with Michael Blackwell on maximizing ebooks access

By Micah May, January 11, 2021.
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Under the leadership of director Michael Blackwell, St. Mary’s County Library in Maryland has been an active participant in DPLA’s ebook work. St. Mary’s was an early adopter of SimplyE, the library-driven ebook app developed and run by New York Public Library, and was the first library to acquire ebooks from the DPLA Exchange marketplace. Michael also leads the Readers First initiative, a movement to improve ebook access and services for public library users, and is an active member of the Library Simplified community.  

We talked with Michael about his library’s experience with SimplyE, and how it’s helped to maximize access for patrons in St. Mary’s County.

If you’d like to find out more about how your library can benefit from SimplyE and Library Simplified, or want to learn more about the DPLA Exchange, please get in touch

Also, I hope you’ll join us on Friday, January 15, 2021, at 2 pm ET for DPLA’s next Community + Open Board meeting. We’ll be hosting Reckoning with Our Pasts and Building Our Futures, a community conversation about the work to be done to live up to our common commitments to equity and inclusion in 2021 and beyond, as well as an update on what’s next for DPLA. Please register here.

Micah May

Director, Ebook Services, DPLA

Can you tell us a little about your library and why you decided to pilot SimplyE? 

St. Mary’s County Library is a small to medium sized system (3 branches, population served 112,500), but we have more than one digital platform, with both locally licensed and state content. The opportunity to discover titles across these platforms in one app, branded for our library, with our customers never leaving our online presence to separate vendor sites, made SimplyE a great opportunity. Maryland provided a grant with IMLS funding for our library to deploy, and we’re grateful for that funding.

What has worked well?  What remains to be explored?

So far, we are accessing OverDrive ebooks and audiobooks, RBDigital ebooks and audiobooks, and DPLA ebooks.  We have primarily been in trial mode until the OverDrive audiobooks were integrated.  SimplyE now supports audiobooks including from Overdrive and the DPLA Exchange, so we will be adding those too.  Overall, SimplyE works well because it is easy to use and brings all our content together in one app. 

Michael, you also lead Readers First, an advocacy group seeking to help libraries better serve e-content to their patrons.  Why do you think ebook service is so important? What would you like to see happen?

Library readers’ use of ebooks has of course grown astronomically in the last 10 years.  People like having 24/7 access to the library’s holdings. Ebooks offer other advantages: Any title can become large print by adjusting the font, and the SimplyE app offers accessibility features that allow people with low vision to experience the books. The COVID pandemic—which we all of course hope will be removed by vaccines and responsible behavior—has acted as a catalyst, advancing the timeline for libraries having to invest heavily in digital access.  People are able to read while print copies often must languish on shelves for now. SimplyE is an advance in this regard. It is the first true manifestation of Readers First core principles:  an app that provides content from many sources without being tied to a single vendor, branded by the library, foregrounding the library as the provider of its own digital content, eschewing proprietary vendor formats.  I refer to it as “The one app to rule them all.” At this point, while we can hope that vendors, including the ILS vendors, might adopt NISO FASTEN practices to streamline how users, content and devices interface, it seems the technology is in place to provide seamless access to content from many sources. To expand access, we need changes in terms. What I’d like to see is libraries and publishers entering into dialogue, leading to agreements that might allow libraries to use their significant but still limited funding more effectively.  We need a variety of licenses at point-of-sale; no one existing license model fits all. Without these changes, libraries may be hard-pressed to offer best-selling content on reasonable terms and may have to become advocates for and providers of more up-and-coming authors, getting access to their work—much of which is worthwhile and certainly representative of diverse voices—through venues other than the Big 5. At the very least, we need to ensure that no content gets “windowed”—licensed to the public but unavailable in libraries.      

St. Mary’s was one of the first libraries to get involved with the DPLA Exchange— the first to buy an ebook and now the first to buy an audiobook.  What motivated your library to be an early adopter?

We wanted to try the DPLA Exchange to see what content was there and to find out if it might represent a unique source of titles at reasonable terms. The integration of the Exchange titles with our other content through SimplyE made this feasible.  We wouldn’t have wanted to launch yet another platform/app on top of the others we have.  We have found some interesting titles not available through our other providers. The interesting unique variable licensing options that the Exchange provides from some vendors allow us to use our money wisely.       

We were interested in seeing the development of and supporting a non-profit exchange that would save libraries platform fees and might ultimately lead to some interesting license agreements. We are encouraged by how DPLA has worked out agreements with publishers such as Abrams for variable license models, ranging from perpetual access to a 5 circulation model that might make it feasible to try the works of some first-time and lesser-known authors viable.  I’m very excited by the possibility of getting access to Amazon-published content—content that has hitherto not been available to libraries and that is likely to be in demand.   

To find out more about SimplyE and Library Simplified, join our free webinar, presented with EveryLibrary Institute, on Wednesday, January 20th, at 3 pm ET. Please register here

We will also be presenting a PLA webinar, Orientation to Library Simplified: The Library-Driven Platform, along with Brad Bullis of the Connecticut State Library and Carissa Egan from LYRASIS, on Wednesday, January 13th, at 2 pm ET.  

To find out more about the DPLA Exchange, please get in touch

DPLA’s ebook work is supported by Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.