May 25, 2018

Zipping up Gaps in the Collection | One Cool Thing

For patrons who live in rural areas, finding the book they want is not always easy. The local library can’t collect everything, and interlibrary loan (ILL) can be slow to deliver, if it is even available. Purchase and fast shipping from Internet booksellers like offer an alternative, but not everyone can afford it. Now, the California State Library (CSL) has embarked on a pilot project to redress that situation.

How it works

Called “Zip Books for Rural Libraries,” the initiative replaces ILL with a “buy v. borrow” procurement model. If a patron in good standing of any of the 30 participating libraries wants a book the library hasn’t got, the library buys it from Amazon, as long as it costs less than $35 pretax. (More expensive requests will be evaluated on a case by case basis.)

The book is shipped directly to the patron, without a finite lending period. When they’re done, patrons simply return the book to their local branch, where the librarian evaluates the item as to whether it will be added to the collection or sold at the library book sale, etc.

This slide, from a Califa presentation on the program, sums up the flow that makes Zip Books so speedy

This slide, from a Califa presentation on the program, sums up the flow that makes Zip Books so speedy

There are no restrictions on genre or best seller status. Audiobooks and large- print editions are eligible as well. Videos and DVDs, however, are not, nor are ebooks. Once patrons have returned one zipped item they can order another, up to five per month. Libraries received an allocation of $5,000 to $7,000 each for the year to spend on these purchases.

The Califa Group library consortium, San Mateo, CA, which is managing the project, set up an Amazon Prime Corporate Credit account for Zip Books; subaccounts were created for each participating library. Participants have access only to their own libraries’ accounts and can order and ship books using the standard Amazon online interface. So far, libraries can’t order from other vendors, but this may be an option in future.

Libraries can implement their own procedures and guidelines to track items and minimize potential problems such as the nonreturn of books; participants in the initial pilot did not experience any issues. (Procedures from the earlier pilot libraries are available as a model, and staff are available for consultation.) Califa and CSL provided promotional materials as well as surveys for patrons.

The statewide project, funded through a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant to CSL, is envisioned as a multiyear initiative, though this phase will last only through August 31. It is based on a previous 2011–12 LSTA-funded pilot conducted by the Butte, Shasta, and Humboldt County ­libraries.

Not just faster but cheaper

In that earlier iteration of the program, participating libraries reported that delivery times to patrons took as little as one day, where traditional ILL would take two to six weeks. But it wasn’t just quicker service, it was also dramatically more affordable: participants that used the buy versus borrow model reported an overall cost savings of 68 percent compared to traditional ILL.

“We at Shasta haven’t been able to do traditional ILL for some time due to funding issues and budget cutbacks, so this has opened a door for us that we had unfortunately had to close in the past,” Martee Boban, customer service supervisor, and Becky Buell, Zip Books coordinator, Shasta Public Libraries, told LJ. “We average about 75 people a month making requests for items through the Zip Books program that we would otherwise not be able to provide, which means we have been purchasing approximately 100 items a month to fill the need. The process is much more efficient and the turnaround time is so much faster…[as well as] significantly more cost effective, with items averaging around $15 instead of ILL’s average cost of $35 to $38.” Boban and Buell characterize the program as “a delight,” citing positive feedback, particularly on the ability to get alternate formats and secondary languages, and repeat users.

Janet Coles, library programs consultant for the Library Development Services Bureau of CSL, said Shasta’s example is representative: other participants have cited foreign-language materials, especially Spanish, as a draw, and many Zip Books participants had curtailed or eliminated ILL because state funding for reimbursement was eliminated in 2011. (CSL will analyze whether requests increase under Zip Books compared with prior to the reimbursement cut.)

From a library that does still do traditional ILL, ILL staffer Lynda Laolagi of Amador County Library told LJ that about one-third of the library’s ILL requests are obtained through Zip Books and are received twice as fast.

CSL’s Coles told LJ that Zip Books is getting good survey response rates and anecdotally positive feedback, but it is still too soon to analyze the program in much detail. “By next fall, we should have collected enough information to provide some preliminary answers,” she said. For 2014–15, “we plan to continue with the current participants and gather more data…the jury’s still out on best practices and applications.”

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

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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