Following its official launch in July, the free mobile app developed in house by the Queens Library (QL) has been installed on more than 5,400 Apple iOS devices and more than 3,300 Android devices. This initial success has led QL to consider adopting a library-as-developer role, selling customized versions of the app to other libraries to generate a revenue stream that would support this and other in-house development projects.
Currently optimized for recent-model smartphones using Android 4.1 or greater, or iOS 7 or greater, the QL app offers cardholders seamless search and access to audiobooks from Acoustik, magazines from Zinio, and ebooks from OverDrive and Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360 platform. Other features include location, mapping, and contact information for each branch, a catalog search, an ISBN barcode scanning function that enables users to scan books in retail environments to see if titles are available at their library, an events schedule that enables registration, an “ask a librarian” live chat service, a contact information form, and even a text-to-donate option.
In part, the app, along with the library’s proprietary tablet platform, is the product of QL’s effort to deliver ebooks and other electronic content to patrons using the principles of Readers First, said Kelvin Watson, QL Vice President of Digital Services & Strategy, and GM of Queens Library Enterprises.
“You stay within the Queens Library experience” when accessing all third-party content, Watson said. “You’re not having to close out one application to go into another application.”
A combination of internal discussions, patron surveys, and focus groups covering the library’s website, the tablet platform, and the mobile app last year helped QL decide which functions to include in the app for its initial launch. The library’s 50-person IT staff and direct-negotiating power with vendors such as OverDrive and Baker & Taylor enabled it to develop the customized features and “baked in” access to e-content using vendor APIs, Watson said.
“We have to do a lot of communicating and development with our vendor partners, but I see that as both a challenge and a positive,” Watson said. “We build stronger relationships with vendors, versus calling [third-party library app developer] Boopsie, who would then work with Baker & Taylor. We go directly to Baker & Taylor.”
Several online reviewers praised the free app’s functionality, with one iOS user commenting in the iTunes store that “I really like the new eContent integration in this [version 1.2] update—it makes downloading so much easier. I can use the app to download an audiobook for my morning jog, a Zinio magazine for the subway, and a children’s ebook to read something new to my daughter before bed. Every library should have something like this.”
Reviewers praised the Android version as well, with one user writing that her work schedule prevented her from visiting her local branch as often as she would like, but “this app is great and convenient for requesting books and picking up at my convenience. It also gives lists of events by branch.”
One dissenting Android user gave the app a one star rating, complaining that almost all functions require a data or wireless connection, and that the app does not retain or cache user account information from use to use. “In the end, the [mobile] website is better because it is much faster and gives the same info,” the reviewer wrote. Others said that the app could be improved by keeping users logged in or enabling access to features like users’ library wishlists. But in aggregate, the app currently has 4+ stars in both the iTunes and Google Play stores.
Watson noted that another library system—which he declined to name—recently held discussions with QL about purchasing a version of the app. Ultimately, the deal fell through, and the library stayed with Boopsie. But, Watson said QL is considering ways in which proprietary, in-house development projects—such as the app and the tablet platform—might be expanded and/or sustained with funding from partner libraries.
“A library working with another library as a vendor is not an easy transition,” Watson acknowledged. However, as he noted later, “libraries know more about what other libraries might be looking for” than vendors might. “We’ve built this, and we want to figure out how to share it with our other colleagues.”
Although libraries are perhaps better known for collaborating on open source software, a few other libraries have also taken a more entrepreneurial route with in-house development projects. For example, Brooklyn College, City University of New York’s (CUNY) library IT department has developed apps, management software, and a scanning station that it now sells to other libraries, many of which are within the CUNY system.
[CORRECTION: The original version of this story listed Kelvin Watson’s title incorrectly. His current title is Vice President of Digital Services & Strategy, and GM of Queens Library Enterprises]