Long Overdue

Episode 2: Mitchell Davis

Sep 26, 2018

Mitchell Davis, Founder and CEO of BiblioLabs, discusses open access and archival content.

Welcome to Long Overdue: Libraries and Technology, a podcast for librarians where we explore the impact that technology has had on the library industry, look at current technology trends, and explore what the future could hold. I'm Rachel Fadlon and I'll be talking to Mitchell Davis, founder and CEO of BiblioLabs. Today we'll be talking about open access and archival content.

Mitchell Davis: Open Dissertations is a partnership actually with EBSCO that we developed probably close to two years ago now. I think for me personally, it's the fruition of a lot of effort and energy I've spent over my whole career working with thesis' and dissertations. I just have been fascinated by dissertations since I really understood what they were, which was a little bit into this career because I didn't have an academic background. And it just seems to me like the rawest stream of research that's out there.

Rachel Fadlon: So Mitchell, tell us a little bit about BiblioBoard and BiblioLabs.

Mitchell Davis: Yeah, so BiblioLabs is a software company and BiblioBoard is our software as a subscription platform that we sell to different types of libraries. And most of our customers today are public libraries, but we do also work with some K-12 libraries, and increasingly are working a lot more within higher ed. So the software has some core functionality in that it can very easily gather things. The BiblioBoard platform can gather things from community members, whether that's local indie authors in the case of public libraries, or local photographers, or artists, or bands, or historians. In the case of higher ed, it tends to be a little different audience, but the tools are essentially the same to be able to collect eBooks, audio, video, images, those types of things.

And then we've got a pretty sophisticated curation platform that allows for administrators, whether that's librarians or whether that's digital program managers, or whoever in the library might be responsible, allows them to curate and enhance that stuff, put it into digital packages, and then publish it out to their patrons. So it's sort of end to end publishing selection curation tool. And then also an end patron user experience.

Rachel Fadlon: And what are some examples of cooler projects that you've worked on with BiblioBoard?

Mitchell Davis: Oh, there's a lot. I think the thing I'm proudest of is the work we're doing in public libraries, is that public libraries are really trying to redefine themselves in the digital era. And they're trying to redefine themselves in an age where you can watch pretty much any movie ever made, read every book ever published, listen to every song ever recorded for not a lot of money. And so you know, great media has become kind of ubiquitous. Libraries have sort of over the last 10 years said, "Hey, what are some things that we can do to really leverage our strengths?" And I think one of those things is engaging their own local community members. They have a building to do that in, they have people who know the community who can help as creators. And so as they've been sort of transforming their physical spaces, I think we sort of quietly in the background, less quietly more recently, have been sort of writing a software operating system for that as a way for them to sort of make sure that their software to support this kind of physical transformation of the space.

We're doing a lot with indie books and self-published books and providing curation partnerships to find the best of those books and have all sorts of amazing stories is kind of how that's working. We're a software company first and I think we got into this not really knowing how it worked, and I think we came along at a really opportune time to sort of have a blank slate and a bunch of software talent. And so we've sort of been able to build a software system that's going along with the sort of physical transformation of the library, which is pretty cool.

Rachel Fadlon: Mitchell, you talked a little bit about these sort of hyper-local focus that you've had. BiblioBoard partnered with Publishers Weekly a few years ago to host Pop-Up Picks aimed at local libraries with the goal of making Pop-Up Picks the Netflix of libraries. Can you talk a little bit about that initiative?

Mitchell Davis: Yeah, definitely. So one of the things I think when we got into this, in terms of public libraries, we were pretty naive in that we built a really amazing technology, and then we realized that there really was no technology we could build that could make telling people they couldn't read an ebook when they wanted to read it seem elegant. And this idea of loaning ebooks out as if they were physical things, which is of course completely the opposite of how the media works. And I think we realized there's no technology we can build to fix the frustration of that eBook model. So we went back and did a lot of work to convince publishers to sell eBooks to libraries in different ways, unlimited simultaneous use, fixed price. So we have probably at this point 50 really strong publishers that we're working with in that model.

And we realize that despite doing all that work, we were never going to displace the eBook lending systems that are out there in public libraries now. They're just too entrenched. And so when we made that pivot to community engagement and that ability to sort of engage your local creators, Pop-Up Picks was our way to sort of try to transform the eBook model at the same time. And so we don't think about what we do in terms of eBooks as eBook lending. We think about them as community eBooks. And so Pop-Up Picks is a geo located eBook collection. You do not have to have a library card, anyone in a city, and state, and a county, just by virtue of where they are, [inaudible 00:05:58] Uber comes and picks you up and knows where you are, automatically gets access to all those materials. And since everything is unlimited simultaneous use, it's just this completely frictionless community eBook experience.

And so we've had to do a lot of work to sort of differentiate that experience from eBook lending and really position it as "Hey, we're not here to necessarily displace your eBook lending system. But by getting publishers to agree to put this high quality content and unlimited use, and with geolocation, you can now go out and attract new people to the library with an absolutely seamless eBook experience, not a, "Go to this app and maybe get told you can read the book." Everything's always there. It's great stuff."

And Publishers Weekly is a curation partner on that project. And so the folks at Publishers Weekly, the same ones that are sort of giving librarians guidance on which books they should be purchasing are saying, "Hey, we're curating this eBook collection and it's available to everybody in your community. Go out and promote it with no fear of success," which I think is a relatively new thing in eBooks for libraries. Because previously if they've actually succeeded, they've either had to purchase more copies or they've had to pay per download. It's hard to ask someone to succeed when the consequence of that success is having to spend more money in an environment where the libraries don't have more money to spend.

So Pop-Up Picks is sort of that consumer brand that the librarians can market to their own community. It's a rotating collection, so the books rotate in and out and we've been able to convince a lot of really good publishers, IPG and The Publishers Group has been an amazing partner on that. They work with a couple of thousand indie presses and indie presses are willing to take more risks, and willing to do more creative things with libraries to try to get their authors in front of readers. And so we've had a lot of fun working with them.

RAILS, the Reaching Across Illinois Library System, Rhonda Pittsford has been a real valuable partner on Pop-Up Picks. She's the head of a consortium. She one time said that, "Consortia are like the R & D labs of libraries. They're kind of the places where you can experiment with things and if they work, make sure they get passed off to the libraries." So they've really been... It's been fun to have a library organization as a development partner on that project. I think it speaks to the way that we work. I think it speaks to how libraries and vendors can work differently in the future.

Rachel Fadlon: Sounds like an incredible initiative. Prior to founding BiblioBoard, you founded BookSurge, which was acquired by Amazon and later became CreateSpace. Can you tell us a little bit about BookSurge?

Mitchell Davis: It's interesting cause I just got an email yesterday that CreateSpace was officially becoming Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. Book Surge, the company we started, after Amazon bought it they ended up rebranding it a couple of years later as CreateSpace. And CreateSpace has become the biggest, best self publishing company in the world, which is of course any entrepreneur is pretty excited to see the thing they created really fulfill its potential. In that case it definitely has.

And what BookSurge did, we offered services to authors to help them format and publish their books. So we also built the print technology that printed the books and so we wrote all the software, and ran all the equipment, and we built a system that could profitably print one book after it was ordered on the internet, which didn't exist at the time. Of course we worked our asses off, but there's always a bit of fortune involved in that kind of stuff. And luckily we met Amazon and Amazon had enough foresight and vision to see that yeah, there was going to be a world of books in the future where you didn't have to have inventory. They could just make anything available and print it after it was ordered. So we worked with the right company at the right time and they've taken that and integrated it in all their fulfillment centers worldwide and I'm really proud of that.

Rachel Fadlon: So that means now they're not just printing one book at a time, huh?

Mitchell Davis: Well they're printing millions of books, but one at a time.

Rachel Fadlon: Right. That's amazing. That's pretty incredible, Mitchell. You're passionate in general about open access, but can you talk a little bit about Open Dissertations, what the project is, and why it matters?

Mitchell Davis: Yeah. Open Dissertations is a partnership actually with EBSCO that we developed probably close to two years ago now. I think for me personally, it's the fruition of a lot of effort and energy I've spent over my whole career working with thesis' and dissertations. I just had been fascinated by dissertations since I really understood what they were, which was a little bit into this career because I didn't have an academic background. And it just seems to me like the rawest stream of research that's out there. And you know we've spent a lot of time talking to grad school students and things like that as part of Open Dissertations, and definitely get this sense from the students that they don't really want to wait on a publishing process anymore. They don't have time. They need the idea, they need the inspiration, they need to put the pieces together.

And so they are saying to us, "We're just going straight to the dissertations and we can discern what we think is valuable and not valuable." And I think that is in its very early stages of being the way that academic research works. So for me, in a couple of different times in my career, I've worked with thesis' and dissertations, putting them up for sale and print on demand. And so I know that if you put these up online, they are discovered by incremental people who would not have found them in an academic environment and people we'll pay for them in print.

And so Open Dissertations kind of has two goals. The first is to take all the thesis and dissertation data, and all of the full text digital, and make every bit of it open to the entire world. We also have a vision of actually making all of the ETD software or the administration software and all those sorts of things free and open source as well. And we're in the process of trying to put funding together for that now, which is always challenging, but that's sort of our long-term vision and we believe that we can sell enough copies of these dissertations in print to consumers on Amazon to fund the entire exercise, which would make it free to academia. It would make it free to the world that would provide everyone full access digitally and for people who want a copy of that in print, they would have that option. And if there's enough people who want that option that we can fund the whole thing with that.

So it's the first I would say, big tectonic shift in how ETDs work in decades and I couldn't be happier to be in the middle of it because I'm fascinated by that universe. That's a lot of fun and EBSCO has been a great help. I mean what happens is we built a site opendissertations.org and all the records are being published there. We've already had more than a million metadata records opted in, on track to getting our next million, and then we just need to start thinking about the full text. We've got some print on demand pilots that are kicking off at The University of Florida here in the next two to three weeks ahead of the big thesis and dissertation conference in September. So a lot going on right now, and I'm super excited about it.

Rachel Fadlon: And along those same lines, we're already talking higher ed, in a presentation for NFAIS, you said that higher ed programs are experiencing a shift as the global consumption and sharing of information become more open and available. You've been exploring projects in higher ed to provide open access and curriculum driven acquisitions. Can you talk more about this and if it's a growing trend?

Mitchell Davis: Yeah, a little bit. I mean I think at a higher level, I think there's an enormous number of issues and problems with the way systems work, and how vendors bump against one another, and a whole bunch of other human related things that just take their own time to solve. So when this will actually exist is hard to say, but I think at a high level as universities are becoming more competitive, as the price continues to go up, universities have to figure out how to make students happier and they have to figure out how to make parents happier. And the current higher ed library experience is something students typically work around. And that is not an ideal scenario.

So I think a lot of our effort on this front is trying to bring to the student university library experience something that is every bit as good as every other app they use on their phones, that they don't get weird pages, they don't get weird errors, they just don't deal with that in the rest of their life. You just can't ask them to try to transition to that when they come into the university and expect them to leave with a high degree of satisfaction. It's trying to just fix that fundamental branding of the university, and make the first year experience better, and all of the things that the college is trying to get right. And to the extent the library can help the college and the university solve those problems, it increases its political position on the campus and it increases its influence. Digital learning materials is such an easy one to solve if you can have kind of have everybody rolling in the same direction.

Rachel Fadlon: Do you see a particular trend in technology that you think will have the biggest impact on libraries either now or in the future?

Mitchell Davis: Yeah. Yeah, I do. I'll tell you one we're working on right now, which is using machine learning to improve library metadata and coming to terms with the fact that there's so much content flowing through libraries that they need to function more like a high volume publisher. The physics don't allow for the cataloging of all those materials. So we've been working with The University of Florida and have gotten involved with a project where it's using full text analysis and machine learning to actually enhance and create new mark records and the results are incredible. And of course if you get a good smart team of librarians doing QA on the back end of that, it's just going to get better and be better.

Rachel Fadlon: At the end of the day, all of this is about books. So my big question for you is what are you reading right now?

Mitchell Davis: Oh my God. I'm reading David Foster Wallace for the first time, which is kind of rocking my world. And I'm reading Villa incognito by Tom Robbins, who's my favorite author. So I could have not been asked that question at a better time.

Rachel Fadlon: Thanks for checking out Long Overdue: Libraries and Technology. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune into the next episode. ISBN nice talking to you.

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.