Friday, May 3, 2013

Yes, eLibraries are improving

It was about a year ago that I wrote a fairly angry post about the Boston Public Library's general failings as, well, a library. Though it went against all my instincts to criticize any library, I felt as though the BPL and I had reached an impasse - they remained firmly in an old-fashioned, clunky, messy state of mind while I wanted them to move forward. Then, over the past couple of months, as both my other local eLibraries have made the excellent step of adopting Overdrive's new website style (and longer check-out periods as well), I began to think that maybe it was time to write off the BPL for good. Why was I still holding on?

The reason is actually quite simple - content. The BPL has a large, very diverse eBook collection. Even though everything else about their site (and their overall library) is distinctly lesser, there's no way around the fact that they often have access to books and media that smaller libraries don't. And now, despite their instance on sticking to Overdrive's old, clunky site design, the BPL has actually gained back some of my respect.

Why? Because the BPL has the option of recommending eBooks for the library to purchase. And more surprisingly, they actually listen. The day I discovered this rather hidden feature, I recommended five books immediately. When I came to recommend the sixth, I realized there was a limit. A week or two later, this limit was lifted and I was able to recommend another five books. I assumed these recommendations were going to the same place my complaints about the non-electronic library had gone, but I figured I might as well show an interest in these smaller publishers whose books I wanted to read.

The other night just as I was about to go to sleep, I saw a new e-mail from the BPL, informing me that the book I had placed on hold was ready for check out. Then another e-mail came in, and another seven in quick succession. Nine out of my ten requests were now on hold for me. The tenth was a book I had recommended the BPL purchase for the sake of other readers - Brodeck, one of my favorite books from the past few years. It too was suddenly in the library's collection.

eLibraries get a lot (a lot) of flak. Truthfully, most libraries have fairly limited collections and awkward search engines. Most probably do not enable recommendations as easily as the BPL does. Of the two other eLibraries I patron, one has no option to recommend titles, and the other has a much less intuitive recommendation form.

But the fact that the BPL is doing this is tremendous. The fact that recommended books are bought within two weeks is incredible. Digital libraries may still be flawed, but now the heaviest claims are starting to disappear. I love that browsing is improving for some eLibraries. I love that I can recommend the library purchase boatloads of translated fiction, or books from the NYRB or a publisher like Small Beer Press. I love that I recommended the BPL buy Brodeck, a gem of a book, and now within 48 hours of its purchase, it's already been checked out and there are two other people on the hold list. I love that half of the books I requested already have others clamoring to check them out. Most of the books in the BPL's digital catalog are mass-market romances, or thrillers, or books that simply don't interest me. But now there are ten more interesting, diverse, and somewhat unexpected books within the BPL's collection. More on the way, with the books I requested today. And I'm looking forward to reading them.


  1. Ah I love it when a library has a good ebook selection. My library has a wonderful ebook selection and adds to it all the time, and it makes me want to use them even more than I already do, and give them money at their fundraising trips.

  2. Glad your library has got better, and love that they're listening to your recommendations. I haven't looked at the ebook selection for a while, but my local only had a small number of books. I don't know whether there's yet enough demand for them here, though.


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