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In 2020, Lyrasis received an IMLS grant to develop and pilot an ebook and audiobook service for state and public libraries. The Palace Project deploys a cloud-based, remotely supported digital library reading platform for collection management and provides a curated set of ebooks and audiobooks through the Palace app and Virtual Library Card (VLC) that allows immediate patron access. During the grant period of September 2020 through February 2024, Lyrasis developed and tested service components, piloted the service for 17 months with pilot libraries, provided training and support for library staff and their patrons, and assessed the value and impact for libraries and patrons. Each pilot library received $25,000 of digital content.

The success of the grant ensures that The Palace Project provides a national model for a unified, patron-centric, library-driven ebook and audiobook system that uses the power of public library collaboration to deliver more and diverse content.

For the next few months, Lyrasis will share insights from the project. For this post, we are focusing on the technical aspects of the pilot, its successes and lessons learned. 

Part 1: Developing the Platform

The overall goal of this project was to develop and pilot an ebook and audiobook service for state and public libraries with origins based on Library Simplified, an open source e-reading software suite. This goal was met successfully. The service, The Palace Project, is being offered and being adopted nationwide using the technology tools, scalable pricing model and partnerships that were developed during the pilot project. 

One of the key tools that was tested, evaluated and enhanced during this project was the Virtual Library Card (VLC). This service allows libraries to issue virtual cards to patrons without the need for an Integrated Library System (ILS). Patrons can sign up for a virtual card using the Palace app, allowing quick access to the library’s online collection. After testing and improving VLC with the pilot libraries, this service is now available as part of the standard Palace platform and is being used in production by several libraries.

Another critical tool developed and tested over the course of the project was an enhanced analytics platform. This platform took longer to develop than originally planned, in large part due to the need to export circulation data to a more scalable, external data warehouse, build dynamic reports using this data and integrate the dashboards into the Palace Manager where they can be accessed by library administrators. Available soon as part of the standard Palace platform, these dashboards provide a wealth of circulation information to libraries in a dynamic, configurable format.

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Many publishers and distributors require the use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies for libraries to purchase and lend their digital content. DRM technologies have generally been proprietary, leading to high costs and vendor lock-in. As part of this project, an open source, interoperable DRM technology called Licensed Content Protection (LCP), developed and maintained by the non-profit organization EDRLab, was integrated into The Palace Project. This is an important step toward a more open library ebook ecosystem that is not dependent on proprietary technologies.

In conjunction with developing the app, another goal of this project was to develop an operating and financial plan for the hosted service that could be offered at a relatively low price to libraries nationwide. This plan has been produced, and is already being used to offer a configurable, scalable solution to meet the needs of libraries of various sizes. The plan moves from a collection-based pricing model to a model scaled to charge by population size with multiple pricing tiers, creating a viable path to lower costs for libraries with smaller budgets. 

The Pilot Libraries

The Palace team piloted The Palace Project suite of services for 10 libraries over the course of 17 months. The participating institutions included two state libraries, one small college library, one K-12 school library and six small-to-medium sized rural libraries. The libraries had varying degrees of engagement and usage, with the state libraries having the most usage. The library that closed during the grant period had the least.

As part of the grant and project, the Palace team provided training and support to all participating institutions. An initial training toolkit, consisting of written documentation, marketing materials and staff-created videos, was created and shared with all libraries at the outset of the project. As the grant proceeded, our team provided significant support hours and resourcing to assist the ten pilot libraries with the pilot. Many of the individual libraries needed frequent support sessions and training from Palace staff members, and we observed a steep learning curve for those using ebook apps and accessing digital materials for the first time. The Palace team hosted numerous webinar training sessions covering the various aspects of using the Palace software suite, including purchasing digital materials from the Palace Marketplace and BiblioBoard (a tool that allows libraries to create and host community content), using the Palace app, the virtual library card (VLC), the VLC backend and the Palace Collection Manager administrative portal. The Palace team also created a number of written instructional documents, updated with improvements over the course of the grant period, to provide additional support to library staff members and volunteers that were tasked with advertising the app. Additionally, we experimented with new training options by contracting with an eLearning company with a dedicated instructional designer to create a series of training videos on the most highly requested topics to assist with our training efforts.

Positive feedback on our training videos and written materials led us to expand those educational pieces for the libraries. Our team contracted with instructional design professionals to create six training video modules on the most requested topics. Additionally, we have expanded the written training materials to provide assistance in multiple formats to accommodate different learning styles. All videos contain English closed captions, and to further expand access, we had the audio, video and captions translated into Spanish for all videos.

A number of assessment tools were used to measure value and impact for libraries, including surveys of the pilot participants and their staff, as well as both in-person and virtual meetings to review the results and discuss barriers to adoption as well as ways to enhance the service. One significant barrier to adoption was a general lack of resources and staff time to devote to managing and promoting the service, as well as acquiring collections, especially on the part of small and rural libraries. One possible solution to this problem is to work closely with state libraries to support and promote the service, as well as provide content via shared collections, which can ease the burden on small libraries.

In the next blog post in this series, we will discuss how the grant helped pilot libraries build a low-cost digital collection of materials to expand their community’s access to ebooks and audiobooks. Participating institutions greatly increased their digital collections, received expert curation assistance to build those collections, and tested a virtual library card feature that has now become available for all libraries in Palace.