Future Shelves

    30 March 2013

    A quiet revolution has been taking place in public libraries in the United States. The adoption of ebooks has raised questions about the future of publishing, booksellers and libraries. Yet for many libraries here, the future in question began years ago. Rather than waiting to be rendered obsolete, we are recognising opportunities to engage with readers in new ways.

    The New York Public Library, where I work, has offered popular downloadable ebooks since 2004, years before Amazon launched the Kindle, which influenced so much growth in e-reading. What began as a boutique service to a few dedicated online users has grown eightfold in just the past five years. In 2012 we exceeded 875,000 checkouts, from a 95,000-volume collection.

    While this represents only a tiny percentage of our total 28 million annual checkouts, it is one of the three most-used collections in all of our 90 libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. Our collection has grown to serve the needs of a diverse community. Fifty Shades of Grey can be found alongside ebooks on science fair projects, civil service exams and how-to guides for new parents. For our users, ebooks are no longer a boutique service.

    It is partly for this reason that the president of the library, Dr Tony Marx, has charged the institution with examining how best to serve library users in the digital age and how to develop the ‘virtual library’ of the future. This strategy aims to determine what we offer online, what expertise is needed, how we incorporate a social media presence; essentially, we are designing an effective set of services of the sort every public library should be offering to online users in years to come.

    While the task is complicated, especially for a library that offers both popular and specialist research collections, it has become obvious that, as with the internet generally, much of the value for users is to be found in the users themselves. Last year we had more than 30 million visits to our website; our social media following grew from under half a million to 1.2
    million followers.

    The first step was to improve our catalogue, which gave us the means to invite these users to engage with us and with each other. In the old days of card catalogues, it would have been anathema for a library user to pull out a card and jot ‘I loved this book!’ on it for others to see. Today, we invite them to do just that and more. lets users rate, tag, share, comment, insert favourite quotes, and upload video content right into the title display. Furthermore, it lets users create and share lists of favourite books. As a true online forum, New York Public Library users can engage with users at other Bibliocommons client libraries such as Boston and Seattle.

    Our way forward is to develop this virtual experience into a truly indispensable ‘intellectual home’ for New Yorkers — a starting point for all things reading-related: browsing, recommendation, discussion, as well as purchase. For example, imagine you are online at home one evening, looking at a title by your favourite author in our catalogue, and you see a link in the display to a talk they gave at the library last month. As you take a few moments to watch a streamed recording of the event, you see other titles pop up that the author mentions, with links to check them out. You see an online discussion has begun about one of the titles, so you join the group, which introduces you to more users.

    The title you are most interested in has 50 people in the queue ahead of you, so rather than wait weeks to read it, you choose a ‘Buy Now’ link affiliated with the library — an e-tailer or local bookstore — which lets you download the title immediately.

    Now imagine that every public library offered a similar experience. As bookstores close, if more libraries were to develop robust intellectual websites for their willing and ready users, this would encourage a diverse and innovative reading environment, in which the library was integrated into everyday life and achieved its most fundamental goal: to connect good readers with good books.