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The Magazine of Digital Library Research

D-Lib Magazine

May/June 2017
Volume 23, Number 5/6
Table of Contents


SimplyE — More People Discovering More From the Library

James English and Leonard Richardson
The New York Public Library
{jamesenglish, leonardrichardson} [at]



In 2015, in an effort to make the library ebook experience simpler and easier for users, a group of libraries developed SimplyE, a mobile application for finding, borrowing and reading ebooks from the library. The goal of the project is to advance a national digital platform to help library patrons find, borrow, and consume the largest variety and inventory of content possible, demonstrating that improving the user experience, especially in the area of discovery, increases the consumption of library ebooks. This article describes the project to date, and outlines future plans.

Keywords: Library E-Content Access Project, LEAP, SimplyE


1 Introduction

In 2015 a group of libraries across the nation organized themselves behind an effort lead by The New York Public Library and the Institute of Museum and Library Service called the Library E-Content Access Project (LEAP) LG-00-15-0263-15. This project sought to build off a previous IMLS National Leadership Award called Library Simplified LG-05-13-0356-13, which explored new technologies and policies to make the library ebook experience simpler. The result was the creation of a mobile application called SimplyE that drastically simplified the user experience for finding, borrowing and reading ebooks from the three clicks or less.

Although SimplyE dramatically improved the user experience of getting ebooks from libraries, the LEAP project went a step further. LEAP is part of a national digital platform drive to improve access to content for libraries. The LEAP effort improved the borrowing and reading experience for other content sources, platforms and media types. It also recognized that merely releasing an open source mobile client didn't do much to help most libraries, who don't have mobile developers on staff. Lastly there was a need to support Open eBooks, an initiative to provide low-income youth with access to ebooks using SimplyE software.


2 Launch

The first implementation of the SimpyE app was as part of the Open eBooks project. Open eBooks launched February 24, 2016 and the program met with immediate success. Over 3.3 million access codes have been requested since it launched, and over one million books were checked out in the first eight months of operation. Open eBooks demonstrated the deep need for free, borrowable e-content.

Since launch, the Open eBooks application has been integrated with a Single Sign On (SSO) service for schools called Clever™, which provides access to over 250 applications in over 55,000 schools and to over 25 million school children. This new feature has helped simplify access to the content from schools participating in the Title 1 program and spurred the adoption of the app by Title 1 schools.

The stability of the Open eBooks service suggests that the SimplyE application can easily handle the scale of a nationwide ebook service from a transactional standpoint. Additionally, it also demonstrated that the app could serve a relatively small catalog of about 4,000 titles, customized in a way suitable for a particular audience — e.g. K-12 children. Given the success of Open eBooks, and the stability of the platform, the project was next tested in the the context of a general library lending service for NYPL which manages a large collection of over 240,000 titles.

In that larger context, the project has provided some early validation of a hypothesis that improving user experience, especially in the area of discovery, would increase the consumption of library ebooks. SimplyE currently implements three basic interventions into the preexisting world of content discovery.


3 SimplyE NYPL Experience

First, SimplyE aggregates content from all ebook sources into one catalog. NYPL is currently using the app for its eBooks service, and uses the SimplyE app to lend eBooks licensed from three vendors: OverDrive, Bibliotheca/3M, and Axis 360/Baker & Taylor.

Second, SimplyE changes the primary discovery mechanism for finding books from "search" to "browse". In other words, the typical experience of the SimplyE app is similar to visiting a branch library or a book store, "shopping" for something to read without having to have a title in mind. In early user surveys, people reported three to two that they browsed for ebooks online rather than searching for a particular book.

Lastly, SimplyE presents titles based on an algorithm that privileges current availability over popularity. This feeds the desire to read something immediately rather than putting patrons onto lengthy wait lists.

Overall, e-content circulation across all three of NYPL's vendor collections increased by nearly 30 percent in 2016 over the same period in 2015, significantly exceeding the Library's goal to grow circulation by 10 percent. The increase was greatest among eBooks licensed through Bibliotheca (almost 35 percent), which were previously only accessible using the less-popular 3M application; this suggests a correlation between circulation growth and the availability of SimplyE, rather than to increased demand generally.

We have also seen a shift in demand that suggests users are finding books deeper in the collection. In SimplyE, users are offered the ability to borrow books from diverse genres and for diverse audiences. Selected titles are showcased in browseable lanes and are immediately available for download. In October 2016, the top 15% of titles accounted for 50% of ebook circulation on all NYPL e-platforms, and 18% of all titles in ePUB format. On SimplyE, the top 20% of titles accounted for half of circulation on the app, while 14% of titles accounted for 50% of circulation on other e-platforms. Best-sellers are popular on SimplyE as in other apps, but SimplyE users have been slightly more likely to check-out lesser known fare, such as The Divorce Papers, a book from 2014 that was borrowed nearly as often on SimplyE as The Underground Railroad, a current best-seller and part of the Oprah Book Club.

Another measure is title utilization rate: the percentage of titles of NYPL's ebook collection which actually get checked out. Between October and December 2016, overall utilization was 57% for titles available in ePUB format. Excluding titles checked out through SimplyE, title utilization was only 48%. As SimplyE adds support for more media types such as audiobooks, we expect to see similar increases in audiobook titles.

Other progress to date includes the expansion of the product onto other hardware platforms such as Kindle Fire and Chromebook Pixel, and the creation of a web-based catalog for aggregated ebook collections (currently used by Open eBooks).

We are integrating new content sources such as Recorded Books, which will pilot the serving of audiobooks through SimplyE. Another area of current work is the addition of the ability to borrow from different libraries in the same app (starting with Brooklyn Public Library and soon after libraries across Connecticut State). We are also creating a new curated collection of 5,000 high quality public domain titles which makes the SimplyE app useful to anyone, with or without a library card. We hope users will explore SimplyE and read that collection, and we hope to convert those users to patrons of their local libraries, through a new feature which allows users to sign up for a library card in the app and borrow immediately. Our intention is to use a library's ebook services to draw in new membership.

Lastly, much technical progress has been made to make the applications simpler to install by IT staff at a library. We are adopting technologies such as Docker™ and Ansible™ to dramatically reduce the complexity, steps and needed expertise to install and orchestrate the application. We are also working with 3rd party vendors to build service offerings that make it easy for libraries to implement this free software.

Our involvement with the open source technical community is also growing. We are collaborating with other non-profit organizations such as Readium, the Daisy Consortium, the European Digital Reading Lab, LibraryForAll, DPLA and Minitex. We have created a new open source development community that will help carry and grow the project into a national digital platform for library ebooks.


4 Next Steps

The next steps for SimplyE will be the continued expansion of the feature set and a focus on reading experience. This includes commonly expected features such as bookmarks, notes, and annotations, as well as improved control over presentation elements such as margin, line space, rendering font and contrast. App store reviews for SimplyE have been mixed, largely due to the lack of these more advanced features. We are also improving the underlying mobile rendering engine, which, like commercial e-reading apps, does not work as well as we would like with assistive technologies such as screen readers.

We are also planning additional interventions to improve the discovery of content in libraries. Features such as read-alikes (books by the same author, or books in the same series) and recommendations will expose more content to the user as they look for something to read. We will solicit ratings for books as patrons return them; this will help drive a recommendation engine that respects patron privacy.

As always, more content means connecting more library systems and their Integrated Library Systems (ILS). It means integrating with content aggregator APIs and special collections such as National Library Service (NLS) and Bookshare for those with reading disabilities. Preserving access to content in a rapidly evolving digital marketplace means working with new Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems such as Sony's User Rights Management System (URMS) and Readium's Licensed Content Protection (LCP) system.

In short, our goal is to help every library patron find, borrow, and consume the largest variety and inventory of content possible. We want to do this with libraries as a community so as to advance a national digital platform, together. To learn more about the project and related projects visit Library Simplified. From there you can sign up for news and check out the code in our open repos on Github.


About the Authors

James English is a former technology executive and entrepreneur working at The New York Public library as the Product Owner of SimplyE and the LEAP grant.


Leonard Richardson is a published author and application architect working at The New York Public Library as the lead application architect for the SimplyE product.