I often spend my Sundays and listening to NPR. (Such a cliché, I know!) But this past weekend, there was a story I was especially to hear. It was a Planet Money story about libraries, publishers and eBooks – a topic I’ve been following for nearly 15 years.
Back when I was Director of Marketing & Communications for a large public library, eBooks were always a blessing and a curse. The blessing was easy to see – eBooks and popular, and you don’t have to rely on customers coming to the library to check them out. That makes marketing them using methods such as email marketing, social media and digital advertising, especially effective.
The curse, however, was also easy to see. eBooks don’t belong to the library in the same way that physical books do. Libraries have to work with third-party companies to provide eBooks, and they don’t technically own them, they license them. The pricing model is also more expensive than print books in most cases.
This is especially hard to explain to library customers, who assume that buying an eBook works the same way for a library as it does for an individual. They don’t understand why they have to wait longer, and why certain titles aren’t available in the formats they want.
That’s why stories like NPR’s are so helpful. It’s a complex story to tell, and it’s hard for libraries to do it effectively. Having reputable news outlet with national reach do the research and produce a long-form story helps educate more people on a much larger scale.
Which brings me back to my topic of interest, which ahs to do with how libraries market themselves and improve access to library services. For years I have cautioned public libraries against the practice of expiring accounts in order to make customers come into the library and verify their residency. To summarize (and simplify) my argument, when libraries do this, they typically do are punishing a large number of potentially active customers in order to stop a few people from using the library when they no longer live in the service area.
But the Planet Money made me reconsider my argument. They pointed out that in the case of eBooks, people who have moved away can still borrow eBooks, which exacerbates the problems of supply and demand, and can upset authors and publishers.
I still don’t think expiring is the answer. I still think it hurts the customer relationship. But I do see a need to verify customers’ residency status. So how can we do this differently? Some library vendors have already found ways to do this online. Some libraries have implemented email campaigns to remind customers to renew. But above all, we need to make it easy for customers to stay with the library. We need to start with the customer and put ourselves in their shoes. No other organization expires active accounts. How can we meet customers’ needs while still balancing our need to manage our resources? If all public libraries have this need, I’m sure we can work together to find a better solution.