Gatekeeper to a Thousand Gates

Librarians provide access to information they license or own.  This gatekeeping role became confused as people could access information directly.  I can now choose e-books and digital audio and video from multiple sources.  But I also need to have multiple apps and approachs depending on the format and the service.  At what point do libraries over-license – to be seen to be adapting to a digital shift – while users stick to a single platform to avoid complexity?  At what point, as Huck Finn might say, is this “too many for me?”

Note:  this post is about the complexity caused by choice and tools.  It is not about the quality of tools or content any publisher provides, nor about e-books, nor about the challenges libraries face licensing content from publishers.  It’s a bit like the paradox of choice, but without the anxiety.

I’ll use my local libraries as an example, but I don’t mean to call them out specifically.  This is a trend at many libraries – public, academic, special – but public libraries are perhaps the most accessible example.  Again, just as an example, if I want to get an e-book, I can use my libraries’ licenses to:

So the first thing I need the library to do for me is to distinguish where I can find what content.  Typically, the library will use its catalog to enable search and also provide direct links to enable browsing.

Accessing the Content

In some cases, your library’s catalog team will have added all of the digital content to the catalog as individual titles.  Some providers, like Overdrive, provide catalog-ready records to simplify this process, although the library staff still monitor for books added (and removed) from the collection.  In that way, a search on the catalog will treat each title equally, regardless of host or format.  A law library might also create records so that legal researchers can deep link directly to a resource within a licensed database, rather than just noting its existence.

I did a search for Dungeons and Dragons and then filtered it down to (a) books I could take home and (b) e-books.  This catalog has included deep links to formats hosted off site, so it’s a great way to get people to the material.  But what about the next step?

Catalog results for Dungeons and Dragons ebooks with facet and access highlighted.

Note the facet on the left hand side.  You can’t tell from this screen, but the item I’ll access when I click through is hosted on Hoopla.  In the catalog it’s listed as a graphic book.  But on the browse page elsewhere on the library site, Hoopla is identified as having comics.  Same difference to a librarian but perhaps not to a user.  I think this is confusing.

When I click the Access Online button, I’m transported to the publisher’s site.  That’s no big deal except that now I’ve got a new login to process.  It could be useful – it certainly would be to me – to let the user know where they’re about to go, because not every connection will work the same.  For instance, a technical book on Proquest is likely to be more useful than one on Overdrive, which lacks the specialized topics.  While many libraries use services like OCLC’s EzProxy to make their services single sign-on, not all licenses support that option.  This academic library describes how, depending on which school on campus you attend, you may or may not access a particular book.  A facet for the e-book publishers might help here, or altering the button (harder) to indicate Access Hoopla or whatever.

If I click the link, I get a site departure warning and then click through to a login page.  For this comic, I’ll need to create a separate login for Hoopla Digital’s web site.  Once I’m on the site, I can borrow the comic book and start to read.  Overdrive and Proquest do not require separate accounts, although Zinio (magazines) and others do.

Browsing to the content works the same way, except you need to know which site has the content you want.  Then you need to use an account – either by being passed over by your library through single sign-on or creating an account on the site – to access the content.

Now Things Get Tricky

This is the point at which, now that the library is no longer mediating the experience, things can get tricky for the user.  The inconsistency in approach and need for additional apps makes this complicated.  I’ll stick with my example of getting an e-book from a local public library.

On Hoopla, I can read a comic book graphic novel in my browser or use an app on my mobile device.  On Overdrive, I can read most e-books either in my browser or use an app.  But graphic novels can only be read in your web browser.  Audiobooks can be downloaded but (a) they need a different Windows app from the Overdrive e-book app and (b) they can’t be loaded into the Overdrive mobile app at all.

Proquest Safari is a different kettle of fish.  I love the Safari web development and technical books but you can only read them in a very mid-2000s style way in your browser.  Proquest does have individual licenses, so you can’t check out books and use them outside this interface.  For me it is the interface most similar to what you might expect in a law library, where users are likely to have a browser window open while doing their other work (coding, document drafting) in another, and they may not be intending to read the book cover to cover.

And that is the breakdown point.  Maybe it’s just me, but I now consider the additional friction when I look for an ebook:

  • if it’s an audiobook, do I have to listen to it on my computer?
  • if it’s an audiiobook, do I have to download and transfer it to a portable device manually in order to be able to listen to it?
  • if it’s an e-book, is it portable or am I restricted to my desktop?
  • If it’s an e-book, do I need a publisher-specific app in order to read it?
  • If it’s an e-book, do I need a publisher-specific account in order to read it?


The librarian and library can insert itself in a couple of places here but, like the catalogers, they need to be on top of the challenges that each publisher’s site offers.  Because the library is not involved on the publisher’s site – and has little ability to impact how their site operates – librarian impact happens before the user gets to the publisher site.

When I visited my library’s web site to see what technical requirements I needed to use Hoopla, for example, the guide they’d written was either out of date or just plain wrong.  The Hoopla video delivery is not plug-in reliant any longer, which is a selling point that should be in that guide.  There was no guide to Overdrive – which is typically any public library’s largest e-book collection – so I didn’t know that there was some content I could only view in-browser.  These are missed opportunities, but it would seem that the more licenses the library provides, the greater the effort to maintain this role in assisting users to use the variety of resources.

Electronic content allows libraries to become part of the online access, as opposed to a user going directly to a web site.  Where remote access might otherwise bypass the librarian, the catalog allows them to integrate and improve the access.  But where the licensed content becomes a hassle to access for the user, there’s no efficient way for the librarian to improve that experience.

One outcome can be that the complexity or interface provided by a publisher causes the user to avoid the resource.  Again using the e-book example, I avoid Proquest titles unless I know I’ll have an extended amount of time with access to a browser while I’m working on a project.  The effect of this is that, when I am looking for technical guidance, I’m more likely to just Google my issue or question and use web-based resources to answer it, rather than using Proquest.  I don’t read comics online so I don’t really think of Hoopla, and I rarely use audiobooks.

The result is that the one ebook provider licensed by my libraries that I use regularly, almost exclusively, is Overdrive.  One reason is that I know how the app and online environment work and, by focusing only on text-based e-books, I know that I can download and take them with me if I need to.  This is not a reflection of how good or bad a publisher’s site or tools are.  But using one tool reduces my learning curve, and I get accustomed to the content that is in it.  This preference for one comprehensive research tool is common among lawyers, even when the tool isn’t comprehensive.

Of the 4 e-book licenses that my local public libraries offer, I end up using one almost exclusively.  This has nothing to do with the quality of the publisher’s content or their site or tools.  It has to do with having a variety of choices, each of which has content and tool nuances that reduce my willingness to recall how each tool works on which platform or what the publisher provides.  It makes me wonder if the points of friction that I have found when using e-books are common among others.

It also makes me wonder if libraries license content because they want to be seen to be providing a resource, rather than because there’s an actual demand for the content or format.  If it’s the latter, do the points of friction kill off usage because the complexity outweighs the interest the user has in getting to that content through a library-mediated gateway?

We have reinserted ourselves as gatekeepers to some online resources – paying the license to make it feel as free as borrowing a book – but it seems to me that we may be adding gates that stretch our resources but, due to complexity, don’t actually expand access.