How libraries can compete with Google and Amazon

Every kid needs a tablet nowadays.
Every kid needs a tablet nowadays.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Gay
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Visit the Central branch of New York City’s Queens Library at 12:55 pm on a Tuesday, and you’ll see about 100 people outside, waiting for the doors to open. At 1 pm they file in: Some settle in the comfy saucer chairs, while others rest in armchairs facing four TVs and open a newspaper. Splashes of blue and green interrupt white walls, and computer areas are separated by category: job information, adult learning center, and “young adult learning.”

But the reach of the Queens Library extends beyond the walls of its 65 physical branches. Dotting the borough are thousands of New Yorkers logged into their own mini-libraries, using the library’s mobile app to do research for homework, or the WiFi hotspots they checked out to fill in the holes in broadband access at home, or accessing e-books on one of the libraries’ tablets they can take home.

Throughout the country, library initiatives are emerging to keep up with technological advances. And libraries are finding that one population they can serve better than anyone else is low-income Americans.

The customers

We think of libraries as a public service, full of nostalgia and old books. That may be true. But librarians, and the people running large library systems, think of their users as customers, which means companies like Google and Amazon are competition—not for profit, but for users. And those companies have the market pretty well covered—it takes just a few clicks to start reading The Secret Garden on Google Play for free, or rent any number of books on an Amazon Kindle for a nominal fee.

“We compete with the cable company, with the book store, with the museum for time and attention,” Kelvin Watson, who leads the Queens Library digital services strategy, tells Quartz.

If that’s the case, who are the customers that libraries can best serve?

One answer is low-income Americans, a community in dire need of access to information and education.

Many families can’t afford the tablets and internet connections that are becoming necessary for kids to succeed in school, and later in higher education. If one of the primary missions of a library is to provide access to information for free, in a new digital age that must include access beyond the library’s walls. (That’s particularly true as school libraries are losing funding and closing their doors for longer hours.)

And libraries are trying to fill that space, in some cases, with the help of these companies like Apple, Google, Amazon. Tech companies and publishers can assist libraries in a few ways, including free access to the hardware and the content that will go on it. Libraries in the US are innovating ways to offer these three things: the information itself, the vessel on which to consume it, and the connectivity with which to access it.

Getting the information

Since as early as 1999, e-books have been available in US libraries. What’s prevented them from being widely read is the cumbersome process of accessing them. With Google books, I can download a non-copyrighted book like The Secret Garden for free in less than a minute. E-books are much more difficult to lend, because interfaces can make access challenging and there are potentially long wait times to access a popular book—a library can buy or seek donations of particularly popular books in print, but don’t have that option digitally.

Libraries do not own a digital text—they license it from publishers, which comes with conditions, like limiting the number of books that can be downloaded at a given time, or paying for continued access to a book (unless it’s old enough to be in the public domain, like The Secret Garden). This allows publishers to continue generating a profit on their books, but it limits the access that libraries can provide.

Larger library systems like the Queens Library have thousands of e-book titles. Their e-book patrons can check out books, whether they are low-income or not. Other library systems around the country are smaller, and might not be able to pay as much for those licenses. Throughout the country, print offerings still far outnumber e-books (pdf, pg. 44) in public libraries.

Even in Queens, there are still far more print books than e-books—about 7 million physical books compared to about 90,000 digital books.

But what if publishers could be convinced to give free e-books to customers who can’t afford to buy them?

In April, the Obama administration announced a partnership with major publishers to offer thousands of children’s titles to low-income kids, over the next three years. School programs or libraries that serve low-income communities need to demonstrate that they have a majority low-income population, and apply to gain access to these titles through First Book, the nonprofit running the initiative.

Low-income students “need access to all the information that’s out there in order to stay and compete not only in an educational environment but in an economic environment,” says First Book spokeswoman Julie Hornaday.

Sharing the hardware

E-books also offer a different problem: Publishers decide which format a reader can use to access their e-book. So instead of loading all the e-books into a single repository, libraries partner with distributors like OverDrive and 3M, which host books from different publishers on their own platforms or apps. The Queens Library has solved this problem by creating an app that hosts all their distributors’ apps within it. As part of the initiative with the White House, the New York Public Library is developing an app that will host the titles for low-income students, and open source the code to help other libraries with their own apps, says Micah May, New York Public Library’s business development director.

Kids who own tablets and computers and smartphones could download the app. But what about the kids who don’t own that technology? Google has the answer.

After Hurricane Sandy decimated parts of New York, Google donated thousands of Nexus tablets and WiFi hotspots to the city’s public library systems—1,000 went to Brooklyn, 5,000 to Queens. Queens and Brooklyn have each loaded their tablets with their own library apps. The Queens check-out period is one month, and can be renewed three times—so patrons can keep their tablet for four months total.

These are useful not only for the content, but because tablet technology is increasingly becoming a regular part of children’s lives. This initiative allows children to interact with that technology early, and continuously, in the home. US education curriculum in some schools have made online research and homework assignments on Google Docs the norm, which means that Americans with access to laptops and tablets at home are at an advantage.

As of mid-May, 3,000 of the Queens tablets were in circulation, with another 1,640 to be deployed over the next year. About 200 have been lost and about 60 damaged since the program launched in November 2013, according to data that Queens provided to Quartz. Library leaders say they’re willing to take those losses as part of the cost of providing access to tablets for people who otherwise wouldn’t have them.

That American children could potentially access this much information from their homes is astounding, says John Palfrey, author of the book Biblio Tech. “There is an entire world of knowledge that is opening up in ways that have never been able to be provided on a single device before,” Palfrey tells Quartz.

The next billion internet users—in the US

Imagine a mother brings home a tablet from the library for her daughter, but they don’t have a WiFi connection. The tablet is pre-loaded with some content, but she can’t download e-books or access the internet without broadband access. This is a serious problem among low-income communities, as access to internet decreases with income and among non-white populations, according to data from Pew.

In some low-income neighborhoods and public housing units around the country, internet service providers like Google Fiber are offering free or cheap broadband.

In New York, Google has donated WiFi hotspots along with the tablets—something it has provided in cities like Chicago and Seattle as well. Other companies are doing the same in more rural areas. That means patrons with the library tablet can log on anywhere to do research, access the internet, or download the books they want.

The Obama initiative will provide the titles to libraries, schools, and community programs, and schools can get hardware through initiatives like Apple technology grants or discounted through the First Book marketplace, but the initiative doesn’t cover take-home WiFi hotspots.

“In order to…create the equality that we’re looking for,” Hornaday says, “the same access is going to be necessary in the home.”

Unless companies like Google continue to donate hotspots to libraries around the country or broadband prices come down, many kids will still be behind more affluent children who have easy access to internet. 

“Being able to provide the resources and technology that people can’t afford on their own is something that the library—that’s what the library should do,” says Watson from the Queens Library. “The library is the equalizer.”