April 19, 2018

Start-Ups Take Library Jobs | Reinventing Libraries

Three years ago, I wrote here that “libraries are so valuable that they attract voracious new competition with every technological advance” (see “Libraries, Ebooks, and Competition,” LJ 8/10, p. 22–23). At the time, I was thinking about Google, Apple, Amazon, and Wikipedia as the gluttonous innovators aiming to be hired for the jobs that libraries had been doing. I imagined Facebook and Twitter to be the sort of competitors most likely to be attracted by the flame of library value. But it’s the new guys that surprise you. To review the last three years of change in the library world, I’d like to focus on some of the start-ups that have newly occupied digital niches in the reading ecosystem. It’s these competitors that libraries will need to understand and integrate with to remain relevant. In order of maturity, from already exploded to just emerging:

Competitor: GoodReads

Reading Ecosystem Job: Find Out What Friends Are Reading

Success Tactic: Fill Everyone’s Inbox

GoodReads may be at the top of its success arc, having just been acquired by Amazon, but its growth over the past three years has been astounding. Libraries often talk about how they build communities of readers and expose readers to new books, but GoodReads has done that and a whole lot more. As much as I find the emails annoying, I just can’t resist finding out what people are reading, and the audience that GoodReads has attracted means that the discussions and groups there are populated with real people. Libraries now need to figure out how to leverage the infrastructure and virtual communities of GoodReads, and its less-annoying competitor LibraryThing, while still retaining the connections to their real-world ­communities.

Competitor: Wattpad

Reading Ecosystem Job: Make Everyone an Author and a Reader

Success Tactic: Appeal to Teenage Girls

Internet consumer start-ups obsess over “engagement,” measured by the amount of time a typical user spends on a service. Wattpad’s engagement numbers are off the charts, and the amount of content its users have contributed is staggering. Wattpad reports that its writing community contributes over ten million stories per month, and has contributed over 4.7 million in the fan fiction genre alone. Users are spending over three billion minutes on the service per month. That’s roughly equivalent to the total usage of all the public libraries in the United States. If you don’t think that Wattpad is taking users away from libraries, consider that “Library Love” by kpgcatlover features heroine “Dewey Decimal Daniels” and has been read 286,000 times on Wattpad.

Competitor: Readmill

Reading Ecosystem Job: Provide A Comfy Place To Read ­Ebooks

Success Tactic: Just Let People Read

The famous diagram showing the 17 “simple” steps needed to get an ebook from a library could have been Readmill’s 16-step business plan. The company does a great job of providing a cross-platform cross-vendor open ebook reading environment with all the affordances needed by a serious or casual reader and none of the barriers. The library needs to figure out how to get readers out of Kindle, iBooks, and other closed environments and into Readmill.

Competitor: SIPX

Reading Ecosystem Job: License Content to ­Educators

Success Tactic: Gather All the Stuff

With MOOC innovators such as Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Khan Academy threatening to remake the world of higher education, you’re probably wondering: Where are those students going to get their digital reading material? If you guessed “the library,” try again. Just emerging from the Stanford University start-up umbrella is SIPX, which is building a huge academic content licensing database that’s poised to be the key marketplace connecting publishers to course developers.

Competitor: Zola Books

Reading Ecosystem Job: Find Me a Book Curator

Success Tactic: Give Hope to Indie Bookstores

If Amazon is the A of ebookstores, Zola is the Z. Since Google Books dropped its bookseller program, small bookstores have flailed for another way to survive the Amazon onslaught. Zola may be their last hope. The ABC’s of Zola start with connecting people to authors, booksellers, and curators; publishers and friends are also important. There’s an obvious slot for libraries and their experience with readers’ advisory to fit in to the Zola environment; time will tell if this mix of commerce and culture will work for libraries, too.

One thing you can be sure of, in three years there will be still another set of new companies taking advantage of new technologies to do some of the jobs that libraries are doing. And libraries will be responding to needs and filling roles that don’t exist today.

And, yes, I’m hard at work on the second version of unglue.it, aimed at “ungluing” a lot more books in partnership with libraries. I hope you’ll read about it in LJ real soon now!

Eric Hellman is President of Gluejar, which “unglues” in-copyright ebooks for distribution under a Creative Commons license. His first business, which developed OpenURL linking software and knowledgebases, was acquired by OCLC in 1996. He blogs at Go To Hellman, on the intersection of technology, libraries, and ebooks

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Information is so valuable that it elicits voracious new competition with every technological advance.

  2. Linda Byard says:

    On a small scale, and not technologically oriented, there is also the movement “Little Free Libraries.”
    Check out http://www.littlefreelibrary.org. It brings the library right to your own neighborhood and is a great complement to our library systems. Growing!

  3. Aditya Chintha says:

    Very valuable one. Recently i found a book of six decades of doctoral research in library and information science in India at http://librarygyaan.com which is very informative and valuable one!

  4. Stephanie Bents says:

    Good Reads, Novelist, and Amazon.com have taken over reader’s advisory. I consider that a good thing. One less thing that librarians need to do and by services that do it better due to crowd sourcing. Now I can participate by adding my two cents to these services. My time as a librarian is better spent on other things.

  5. I strongly doubt that libraries every had a monopoly on book recommendations. The newspapers used to have book sections and offer book reviews. Publisher’s Weekly used to be a fat magazine in the old days with ads and reviews. Many publications offered book reviews of relevant titles to specialized audiences. Libraries offered the most filtered of book recommendations because we could get down to the level of the individual reader (e.g., your second grader who loves sports and animals). But many times, we were not channeling Nancy Pearl, not experts on every genre and every author. I spent years recommending children’s books that I knew a little about and books I had re-read several times–and the kids would pick a book to their own taste, regardless of my expertise or passion. The loss of browsing that comes with e-books offers an opportunity to Libraries to convey our real knowledge of books to the patron in a new environment that may be easier for us to access as well as the readers.

    • Stephanie Bents says:

      I had to laugh at the comment about kids picking a book to suit their own tastes. I just never understood why I could never talk kids into loving the Francis and Blueberries for Sal books as much as I do.

  6. Can I point out that the book you mentioned, ‘Library Love’ by kpgcatlover, has 825,000+ reads as of September 11th, 2013? I just had to point out that mix up with the read count :)

  7. Our library actually integrates GoodReads into our online catalogue. We all can’t read every book; reading and sharing is a community thing, not a Librarian-only thing. Integrating that into the catalogue’s review stream seems like next logical step. And Libraries are SO MUCH MORE than just a place to find the next best read.

    As far as WattPad is concerned, I am already thinking of ways (programs, classes) to build a physical writing group in our library community, and move our efforts into the virtual (ie. Wattpad), to share our stories with others in the world around us. More libraries need to start thinking along the lines of ‘Library as Publisher’, not just content provider. What a great opportunity to do so.

    The only one that concerns me, that’s not on this list, is Oyster Books (www.oysterbooks.com). This is described as the ‘Netflix of Books’. If ANYTHING has the potential to kill libraries, it would be Oyster Books. It’ll be interesting to see how that company evolves.