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 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.

In this post, 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 the Palace app.

The funding provided by the IMLS grant enabled pilot partner libraries to significantly expand their digital collections. Content was made available for purchase from BiblioBoard and the Palace Marketplace, with both services offering a diverse range of materials to cater to various interests and age groups. All libraries also had the option to configure the Palace Bookshelf of over 20,000 open-access materials, including open textbooks and leisure-reading materials, to supplement their small licensed collections.

The Challenges and Innovations

Helping libraries build their digital collections wasn’t without its challenges. Some library communities were not accustomed to accessing digital content, leading to initial resistance among patrons and staff. To address this, extensive training sessions were conducted for library staff, empowering them to navigate and utilize these digital materials effectively. A few of the participating libraries had access to a shared digital content collection in their respective states, but most of those collections had very few copies of popular titles and prohibitively long holds queues of patrons waiting for those titles. Frustration with prior experiences with long wait times for materials had already caused patrons to shy away from using ebooks. To assist with convincing those users to try a new digital reading app, the Palace team created an extensive marketing toolkit for the libraries to use for promotional and outreach efforts. 

Expert content curation played a pivotal role in the success of this project. The Digital Public Library of America’s volunteer curation corps of librarians worked to curate carts of popular and relevant content, tailored to the needs of each library and its patrons, for librarians to review, edit and purchase. Those libraries that did not select pre-made carts worked with Palace Project staff to assemble carts of appropriate content to create a digital collection that suited the needs of their libraries and patrons. Additionally, our BiblioBoard colleagues provided collections of content, including titles with simultaneous-use, perpetual access licenses, and materials specifically aimed at younger audiences, catering to the specific and diverse needs of our K-12 school pilot library. 

The Virtual Library Card

One of the most innovative aspects of this project was the introduction of the Virtual Library Card (VLC) service. The VLC evolved over the course of the pilot project, incorporating feedback from libraries and patrons to enhance its functionality and user experience. The VLC works by asking a user for a one-time permission to share their device location to confirm they are in the designated service area for the library. Initially, each library could only choose one state as the designated service area, but this functionality was enhanced to support multiple states, as well as more granular options at the county and city level. Additionally, email address domain validation was added to support organizations (e.g., schools) where all users have an institutional email account. Numerous other improvements were made, including improvements to the administrative interface to make the service easier for libraries to manage. From simplifying the borrowing process to adding new features based on user suggestions, the virtual library card has become an indispensable tool for accessing digital resources seamlessly. 

Feedback from the Pilot Libraries

Throughout the grant process, libraries provided valuable feedback on all aspects of the Palace Suite and content available for purchase. The Palace team surveyed participants on the grant pilot experience, using the Palace app, the Palace Collection Manager backend administrative software, the virtual library card experience in the app and the virtual library card backend portal. Observations and assessments from libraries were used to guide the evolution of the project throughout the entire grant period. Our continued solicitation of library feedback ensured that the needs and preferences of libraries and their communities were heard and addressed effectively via improvements to the software, increased training and additional marketing materials. Libraries and their patrons expressed their opinions via multiple surveys and meetings, shining a light on critically needed improvements that were developed, and suggested numerous useful feature requests that have been added to our prioritization list for future development consideration. 

Below are survey responses regarding Palace training and marketing materials provided in the IMLS Partner Toolkit:

Below are survey responses regarding content options for purchase:

Some suggested features from IMLS pilot libraries have been added to the Palace product roadmap for consideration:

  • More information on reporting inventory availability, active users and holds
  • Larger thumbnail images for materials in the app
  • A “help” link in the Palace Collection Manager to connect with Lyrasis staff and get tips for guidance on frequently asked questions
  • Improved in-app search
  • Ability to renew items in the app
  • Ability to delay holds in the app

The Palace team has received positive feedback from grant participants, with two libraries opting to continue with The Palace Project after the end of the grant period. One grant participant, Cari Dubiel, Assistant Director of Twinsburg Public Library, shared her experience with using Palace: “From the Palace Project grant, I learned about our community’s needs when it comes to ebook lending. Our patrons benefited from exploring a new app and understanding how libraries are navigating the digital landscape.”

For more background on the project and our partnership with the pilot libraries, see The Palace Project IMLS Grant Report, Part 1: Developing the App with Pilot Libraries.

In the next and final post of this series, we’ll discuss the Palace Manager, reporting and analytics, and forming relationships with partners and stakeholders for patron adoption and ongoing improvements to The Palace Project.