Guest blog by Scott Hargrove, director of IT and support services for the Fraser Valley Regional Library, and a presenter on digital competition at the Future of Libraries Institute.
In a previous blog posting (2013 11 25), I noted the incredible growth of non-traditional competition that libraries are facing in the digital era. At the moment, digital content appears to represent more of a threat than an opportunity.
Historically, public libraries have been in the content provision business. We provide DVDs, magazines, newspapers and, of course, books to our customers. With the growth of the Internet, however, our position as a content provider is in serious question.
Digital content has re-written the rules, and introduced new players that compete in the same markets that libraries do – and arguably, they do it better.
Libraries continue to offer digital analogs to newspapers and magazines, provided on platforms such as Zinio™ and PressDisplay™. But increasingly, we are in direct competition with the content providers themselves, and hamstrung by embargoes and lack of access to high-value content. The recent removal of some of the most popular magazines from Zinio™ by Rogers™, the content owner for their own electronic subscription platform, illustrates the threat libraries face in this niche. The current trend in the content marketplace, as with so many marketplaces, appears to signal the end of the “middle man”, or at least those with an uncertain value proposition.
As libraries struggle with difficult business models and poor title availability in their e-book offerings, businesses are springing up that offer library-like content services with access to improved user interfaces and more and better titles. For $8.99 a month, Scribd™ offers unlimited access to over 40 million books and documents, “the largest library in the world…including the Library of Congress”, according to their marketing materials. Oyster™, another early industry leader, seems positively pale by comparison, offering unlimited access to a mere 100,000 titles for $9.95/month.
The video content market is being redefined in much the same manner as the music industry in the 1990s. It was widely reported by the media in early November that during peak usage times, 51.3% of bandwidth in the United States is used by NetFlix™ and YouTube™ combined, dwarfing other “competitors” including Amazon™ and Hulu™. (See: http://www.forbes.com/sites/amitchowdhry/2013/11/11/netflix-and-youtube-accounts-for-over-50-of-peak-fixed-network-data-in-north-america/) Video-on-demand services from cable and telecom services (primarily Shaw™, Telus™, Bell™ and Rogers™ in my area) offer an extremely convenient alternative to DVDs, albeit without the added content and features available in most DVDs. And new competition is thundering on to the field in the form of so-called “gaming consoles”.
This month, Sony™ released the Playstation 4™, followed closely by Microsoft’s™ Xbox One™ – other big players are waiting in the wings as well. These devices have evolved far beyond the video game milieu – they are rapidly becoming the entertainment center of the household, aggregating content ranging from on-demand movies and television to social media and Internet applications. Skype™ is prominently advertised in Microsoft’s™ marketing material, noting that customers can talk with their friends and family while watching TV on the same screen. These consoles represent a major challenge to the “traditional” streaming content providers mentioned earlier. Rather than trying merely for the entertainment dollar, both are aiming at a much more precious commodity – customer leisure time. They are achieving this goal by offering multiple content experiences using the same device – Microsoft™ refers to the Xbox One™ as the “all in one console…split your screen, not your time”.
Where does the humble public library fit into this challenging new world? At least one library system, Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL) based in Kansas City, has re-positioned themselves from “books” to “access”. Their customers have “Access Cards”, rather than “Library Cards”, “Access Guides” rather than “Program Guides”, and their whole philosophy of service changed. While only ten months old, the new initiative has achieved impressive results, with significant usage increases in services ranging from e-book circulation to enrollment in online classes. (See: http://www.infotoday.com/mls/nov13/Staley–How-To-Prove-a-Librarys-Relevance.shtml)
If this is the new core role for public libraries, emphasis must shift from our traditional collections to helping our customers identify and access digital content. Clearly, improved bandwidth (and access) for public WiFi and computing is critical, especially in small, rural communities. Many libraries report increasing customer demand for training and assistance with the never-ending proliferation of consumer content devices, so increasing staff skills with these devices is also warranted in many markets.
As with our other core services, creating a strong value proposition for our customers is the key to ensure they keep coming back. Most of the competition described in this posting costs significantly more than equivalent services from a public library. But in the end, is the value proposition offered by the competition worth the extra cost to the customer?