Your Call Cannot Be Completed

One analogy I often have in mind for the disintermediated librarian is the telephone switchboard operator. Law libraries are heavily reliant on licensed services, accessed directly by legal researchers. The law librarian – through licensing and payment – enables the connection between the researcher and the information. But what happens if the connection breaks down?

A simple example is this payment dispute in South Africa. Judges were unable to access a commercial legal publisher’s database because the Department of Justice was apparently behind on payments. A law library in that situation is stuck but only momentarily. It would be as if the switchboard cord didn’t reach far enough.

Use is an Investment

But what if the call just doesn’t go through? Repeatedly? What is the library – and librarian’s – role then? And what is the long term impact if researchers stop using services – stop making calls at your library?

My frustrations with the public library distributed Zinio magazine replacement, RBDigital, are the sort of stark problem that can face a library. I posted about the app when it was new and, it seemed to me, not very well conceived.

The app wastes a lot of screen space and there were other … peculiarities. For example, you could browse magazines from A to Z but after Z, there was a small collection. It was almost as if the public library had selected some additional titles, but rather than integrating them, RBDigital just tacked them on the end.

Over time, though, the RBMedia team has continued to develop the app. It hasn’t always gone well.

The screen says “An error has occurred.” Yeah, I’ll say.

It is not uncommon to get an error message that says just that: I’m an error message. Usually killing the app and restarting will at least bring up the app screen again. But this introduces a certain sense of unreliability. Like a phone call that periodically drops.

There must have been a recent update to the app the other day, because when I started it up, all of my magazines – downloaded and some partially read – had disappeared. It was like the app was new, out of the box. [An aside: this user interface is terrible, because if you only use magazines, the top audiobook portion just remains empty; it can’t be removed or resized. Perhaps just list all items checked out, with an identifier to indicate whether it’s a magazine or a book, and a filter to be able to look at one or the other?]

Default RBDigital interface. Could show magazines but not always.

Sometimes you’ll find a new issue of your magazine and check it out, but be unable to download it. Or download it a … negative amount.

A particular New Yorker issue showed a -930% download amount remaining. I’m not entirely sure how that would work. An upload?

One thing I noticed – because I attempt to use this app multiple times in a week, either checking for new issues or reading ones I’ve successfully downloaded – is that new features were being added. Like the older Zinio app, it would now automatically download a newly checked out magazine, if you made that choice in your settings. And the landing page was different.

But then the changes disappeared. Worse, I got this when I went browsing for magazines available from the library. Nil. Squat.

As Blue Lou Marini said, “Those lights are out on purpose.” A blank RBDigital screen where the library’s magazine collection should appear.

As the time investment required to use a library service increases, but the output value remains the same or falls, you risk losing your audience.  But if a library is disintermediated from the service, at what point do they realize that what they’re paying for isn’t working, that falling usage rates aren’t a value statement, they’re an investment cost statement.  And the cost is too high.

Where Does the Librarian Belong?

The flow in this situation is slightly different from that of a law library. In this case we have:

  • reader
  • library license and authentication (public library card)
  • app provider
  • content provider

Those last two roles are often the same publisher in the legal world. Think Thomson Reuters and Proview. If a Maclean’s magazine issue is not available through the RBDigital app, or has other problems, a reader can work around it. But when the app itself is not functioning, there is a bigger issue.

The first challenge may be whether the library staff knows how the app works and how readers are accessing it. I helped a relative with an app to get online content from her library. The librarian was surprised there was an app, and had only information on using the web interface.

Similarly, I went into our public library here and found that, while the staff person knew the app names, she hadn’t tried any nor had realized that two of them (Zinio and Overdrive) had been replaced (RBdigital and Libby).

The next challenge is to remain on top of those things that the librarian is paying to enable access to, but may not use herself. Disintermediation can enable a complacency where, given other demands on staff time, we make the connections without worrying about whether the call can be completed as dialed.

I’m stuck with RBDigital – stuck as in at a fork in the road not as in need it. As my use of public libraries is increasingly tilted towards digital resources, it is nice to access online magazines. But most of the content is a nice-to-read. If I can’t read it in the magazine, I can probably read some of it online for free or go without.

I also realize that it’s something I’m paying for, in a roundabout way. That may make me try a bit more, but in the end, I’m likely to dump the app. That will cut another strand that keeps me tethered to the public library. I realize that is not what death by a thousand cuts means, but one can picture support for a library diminishing if enabled resources are what legal researchers use, and that use is unsatisfactory.