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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

GMLC brings audio to the masses

With 11,730 volumes, the Platt Memorial Library in Shoreham, Vt. serves a population of 1,299. Compare this to an establishment like Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Vt., which maintains a collection almost ten times as large for a population of nearly 40,000, and the obvious conclusion leaves residents of smaller towns without the same number of resources, and unable to keep up with a constantly growing pool of text.

Cue the Green Mountain Library Consortium (GMLC), for whom equity has been a primary motivation. The consortium, which, since it took off in 2007, remains the only one of its kind in Vermont, now providing downloadable audio books to over 100 libraries statewide, aiming to make its resources available to both the well-funded and financially limited collections.

“In a consortium,” explained Judah Hamer, children’s librarian at Illsley Public Library in Middlebury, and treasurer of GMLC, “each member pays in money to create this umbrella structure that serves each individual library well. To an end user it looks sort of like a county library system, except that a county library system is funded often with state or county or local level money.”

GMLC, on the other hand, is more of a grassroots organization, which allows the board — Stephanie Chase and Lucinda Walker join Hamer as president and secretary, respectively — to establish its own billing system so that each participant may take full advantage of the services.

“Something we still work on every year is how to create a fee structure that makes it possible to provide equity for the level at which people participate,” said Hamer. “So it seems fair to everybody, but at the same time, is still accessible.”
Currently, GMLC charges member libraries based on budget size, asking different percentage levels from the large span of budgets. It caps the fee for the bigger libraries, again seeking to level the playing field. Libraries invest these funds so their readers don’t have to.

“Library services are free,” noted Hamer. “That’s the point.”

But while readers only benefit from membership in the consortium, the financial burden on participating libraries is not insignificant. Still, what was originally a group of no more than two dozen libraries has gained almost five times that many members in a matter of three years. Consortium members see it is a worthwhile investment for several reasons, one of which is the availability of titles.

These titles are chosen by GMLC’s selection committee, a group of librarians who feel out different audiences for what is in greatest demand. From there the committee goes to Overdrive, a vendor that provides downloadable audiobooks.

Since its inception the consortium has begun working with a second vendor, Recorded Books — also known as NetLibrary — and in July it will start requiring its members to make use of both providers. Hamer sees the use of two companies as beneficial, because GMLC can bank on the best from each different model.

Recorded Books, for example, provides an audio database for which the company is directly responsible. It develops the recording from the beginning, finding readers and negotiating rights. Therefore, the quality is consistent and members know what to expect. Additionally, once a title is in the Recorded Books database it is available to any reader at any time.

This is different from the Overdrive system, which mirrors a library’s one-book, one-reader arrangement. The audiobook is checked out and unavailable to others. That said, Overdrive allows its material to be downloaded piece by piece rather than all at once.

“It provides the flexibility for people to download books in smaller bits,” said Hamer.

Additionally, once the consortium buys an audiobook from Overdrive, it owns that recording. If GMLC chose to end its contract with the company, they would still have the collection that accumulated during the partnership, whereas Recorded Books is a database for which GMLC pays to have access. Once the pay stops, the database is no longer available.

But even if the consortium wanted to end its association with either vendor, Hamer doubts that this would be feasible.
“These companies negotiate lots of different rights for books so they don’t really overlap in the content,” noted Hamer. The selection, therefore, would be too limited to serve GMLC’s audience without drawing material from both vendors.

The variation throughout this audience is one reason, Hamer believes, that the consortium has been so successful.

“It hits different slices of the population that are really distinct,” said Hamer. “The kid who wants to listen to the book and read along is very different from someone in their 70s or 80s whose sight is deteriorating and who needs another option because large print book selection is limited.”

Hamer also listed commuters and people who work late among the most common listeners.

“For lots of libraries that don’t have evening hours, that’s a way to serve that population that may never get in the doors,” observed Hamer.

As successful as the GMLC has been, the board is familiar with the challenges it will face as it moves forward. For one thing, the demand of responsibility is unrealistic for a volunteer board of just three people.

“There are a few people carrying a lot of weight,” said Hamer. “There are points where you say, ‘This could be more smoothly run.”

Additionally, getting member libraries to be more active participants is a difficulty.

“Making decisions for the consortium can be difficult,” said Hamer. “They’re better made collaboratively with lots of input from different people. This is a public service,” Hamer continued. “We’re constantly evolving to meet the needs of the public. We need to help members to realize that their active participation role is significant.”

In the spirit of collaboration, GMLC has also launched a new project with Opensource Software. Together this subset of GMLC and the software development company are working to develop an integrated library system that would allow member libraries to have their own servers and house their own collections and catalogs.

Beyond this, Hamer doesn’t foresee any other large-scale projects, at least for the present.

“We’re at this point where we know we could grow a lot,” he said. “But we have to get some things in place before we really punch into that growth.”