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The innovative Douglas County Libraries system in Colorado has done it again—with the release of a new iOS app for iPads, iPhones and presumably Touches and the forthcoming iPad Mini.

Significantly, the app makes it a snap to check out library books, without forcing you to download through a Web browser. Talk about the path to Kindle-simple!

DCL’s Android equivalent of the iOS app was promising, but not a smooth enough patron experience when I tried it earlier this year. But DCL will be improving the Android version. And the iOS app, judging by a quick test drive on my iPad after a download of the DCL Reader from the Apple app store, is at least as easy to use as the ubiquitous OverDrive iOS app and maybe easier. Click on the screenshot for a better look at the DCL iOS app’s library view—complete with a “Get books” option that mercifully doesn’t lead to a browser.

You can search for a book within the DCL Reader and almost immediately be reading it or stashing it away to enjoy later. The main downside is an unavoidable one at this point: the use of Adobe’s cumbersome encryption technology, which, last I knew, had a nasty limit of five or so devices. Adobe hopes to improve matters, but how pathetic is the current “protection standard” in the library world! At least the non-Kindle part—and maybe even all parts if you consider that libraries and OverDrive are mere front ends for Amazon, not hosts of the Kindle editions.

Kudos to both Douglas County and Bluefire, which allowed its reader to be adapted. Both technologically and in terms of business models, this is significant progress since the Douglas County app will work with ePub and PDF books that the library owns and stores on its own servers.

Of course, I hope that a national digital public library system can come into existence and really accelerate progress, with assistance from the Digital Public Library of America, which, as I see it, could enable public and academic libraries to share a common infrastructure and tech services. But I’m all in favor of progress in the here and now. Douglas County’s success could be an especially good bargaining chip if the DPLA or another library-oriented nonprofit could buy out OverDrive.

For now, I’m pleased that the DCL app can not only check out library-owned books but also OverDrive ones. Hats off to OverDrive for allowing this, and I just hope that the right billionaire(s) can come along to help carry out the purchase. If nothing else, despite the piggybacking on the Bluefire product, the Douglas County experiment helps dispel the myth that libraries can’t undertake technological initiatives that meaningfully improve the patron experience.

How many times do I have to say it? Libraries need to control their own technological destiny—well, to the maximum extent possible. Amazon’s outrageous omission of text to speech from the Paperwhite E Ink Kindles is an illustration of the perils of libraries depending excessively on proprietary approaches. Like it or not, Kindles these days are almost surely the main way patrons read library e-books. The Douglas County experiment offers a promising alternative despite the Adobe-related hassles of the moment. May better library DRM for downloads be along soon—and lots and lots of other library-initiated innovation!

UPDATE, October 9: More features are on the way, according to Monique Sendze, DCL’s associate director of information technology:

We are currently working with Bluefire to deliver significant App upgrades to our iDCL Reader App in October that include great new features for both Android and iOS, including support for iOS 6 and the new iPhone 5 screen size.

Facebook Sharing: One of the most exciting features that we are introducing is the ability for users to share excerpts of books on Facebook, Twitter and in email.

What’s New: Here’s a quick list of the new features that will be included in the coming updates:

What’s new on iOS:

  • Get definitions of text in eBooks while reading
  • Share book excerpts via Facebook, Twitter and email
  • Choose between dozens of additional fonts for reading
  • Highlight text with just one touch
  • Improved eBook text search
  • Easily create and manage collections of eBooks
  • Export your highlighted excerpts and annotations via email
  • Support for Chinese, Japanese and Korean language eBooks, including vertical writing and right-to-left page order
  • Support for the iOS 6 and the new iPhone 5 Screen Size

What’s new on Android:

  • Get definitions of text in eBooks while reading
  • Share book excerpts via Facebook, Twitter and email
  • Choose between dozens of additional fonts for reading
  • Highlight text with just one touch
  • Improved eBook text search

Good stuff, Monique. At the top of my own to-do list for you would be the ability either to switch on bolding or have both bold and regular versions of all fonts (covered by your reference to “dozens of additional fonts”?). Better still, I’d love a slider switch that would let you chose the weight of the font—in other words, adjust the level boldness rather than be stuck with “either bold or no bold.” For me and many other people, perceived contrast is an issue even on LCD screens, not just E Ink ones. Next on my list would be high-quality text to speech (I myself am partial to the Amy voice associated with  the Ivona engine). Like all-text bolding, TTS would be totally in line with public libraries’ accessibility goals. You could offer excellent voice for free and, for a slight profit, sell add-ons for the extra-particular patrons.

Also, I’d like the ability to change font sizes by pinching motions, the same as Stanza and some others allow. As it is, I very much appreciate the ability to change brightness by sliding up or down on the screen (if you’ve toggled in that feature). Similarly, faster paging of books, especially those with photos, would be welcome.

Meanwhile it’s great to see Monique and the DCL innovating at a rapid pace in ways directly helpful to patrons. Time for the DPLA to team up with them? If libraries want to stay competitive with Amazon and others without just being Jeff Bezos’s affiliates in effect, they could do worse than to make things as easy for patrons as Douglas has done (except for the hard-to-avoid Adobe hassles).

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