Off the Shelves: Libraries Are Redefining Their Lending Mission in the Age of Digital Devices and Content

Article excerpt

Three years ago, when K-12 schools started thinking seriously about creating digital libraries, the Mesquite Independent School District (TX) bought several Sony eReaders, loaded them with books, and circulated them to students. This initial attempt was not a rousing success.

"It was a nightmare because e-readers are meant to be personal devices," recalls Debbie Swartz, library technology facilitator for the district, which serves 38,000 K-12 students. After being checked out, for example, the devices had to be authorized to an individual with an account, but then couldn't be authorized to anyone else. Also, if the students took the devices home and hooked them up to their own computers, those devices remained authorized to that home computer. "We realized pretty quickly that we wanted to back out of the device 'lending' aspect of the digital library," she says.

A River of Reading

Those specific limitations aside, device lending is still a feasible, if imperfect, option for some schools. At Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA, for example, librarians have put their faith in Amazon, using a combination of both school- and student-owned Kindles and iPads tethered to a single, school authorized account to let students read books and other digital content.

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"We picked Amazon because we can have an unlimited number of devices associated with our account," explains Thomas Corbett, executive director for the school's Fisher-Watkins Library.

While Cushing Academy owns more than 100 Kindles that students can use on an on-demand basis, and lets students download books via the Kindle's mobile app, Corbett says they have "no special arrangement" regarding the content or pricing. Like any Amazon account holder, the school works within the Amazon system of e-book distribution: Librarians typically purchase a copy of a book and wait for students to request it. When they do, librarians load the title onto a school-owned device for the student to check out, or else send it straight to the student. Depending on the publisher, the school may be able to put each purchased copy--called a license--on as many as six devices.

"We encourage [students] not to worry about what we already own, but to browse the bigger universe of titles that may interest them," Corbett says. In this way, "we can immediately satisfy demand, and get students connected into reading more quickly, because they never have to wait for a title to become available."

Not a "lending" setup in the traditional sense, Cushing Academy's digital library strategy has been well received by both teachers and students, and the library's budget has remained constant even as it has moved toward a "patron-driven" digital content approach. "We can meet demand better then we could before and we don't have to manage a local, physical collection," Corbett says. In fact, he says, librarians should learn to embrace the new rules of content curation. "It's difficult for librarians to get out of that mode of 'owning' a collection and being its gatekeepers," Corbett says. "But that's old-school."

The main issue with Cushing's model has been that Amazon's service isn't necessarily designed for institutional use, and Corbett hints that his school's strategy may not be sustainable. "In the future, we'd much rather support a recreational platform that is more sustainable," he says. "But it works for now."

Some publishers, for instance, are concerned that Amazon's six-copies-per-title policy could cut into profits--a worry that Corbett feels is unwarranted. "We find that we're spending the same amount or more on digital content," he says. "Publishers aren't getting any less money from us than they were before, and students are reading more than ever. Isn't that a win-win?"

Shifting Into OverDrive

After the Mesquite ISD pulled the plug on its disastrous e-reader lending program, the district, still intent on building a library of digital content, decided to focus its approach only on loading popular materials onto student-owned devices. …