Against the Grain Vol. 33 No. 2
ATG: Mitchell, after selling BookSurge to Amazon in 2005 and then working for them for a couple of years, you re-connected with your original BookSurge partners and founded BiblioLabs. What gave you the inspiration to start this new venture? In short, why BiblioLabs and why then?
MD: It was mostly an accident. When I left Amazon, we started a publishing company and we were working with libraries to publish out of copyright editions. We worked with the British Library to put up about 80,000 19th Century books in print and developed a very innovative relationship with them in terms of product development (we won a BL Labs Award for this work in 2016 — see https://biblioboard.tumblr.com/post/152906354171/bibliolabs-wins-british-library-labs-2016-award).
When the iPad came out in 2010-2011 we were smitten and asked the BL if they wanted to collaborate on an iPad app to give access to all those same 19th Century books. The iPad let us do it in a way that showed all the original character of the books: notes, scribbles, coffee stains, etc. that were missed in creating print-on-demand versions. BL curators organized the books into popular topics (castles, golf, sailing, etc.) and off we went.
The app was a big hit, launching at the Apple WWD conference and being downloaded over 250,000 times in the first week. From that initial success we have self-funded and creatively stumbled our way through almost 10 years of being an innovative company in an industry where innovation is far from the top of the list in terms of ingredients for success. After some trial and error, we have finally found our place.
ATG: In a recent interview you said that our industry’s vendors were (and still are) plagued by last generation mindsets and technology. What did you mean by that?
MD: A lot of these companies do not realize that if User Experience fails, everything fails. The campus is an isolated world in many ways, and users are forced to use what is in front of them even if they don’t really like it. Because of this the library UX has slipped far behind the rest of the world and is out of step. Being a great software company is hard and is a great deal about the culture of the people doing the work. The culture of most companies that succeed in this industry is one of consolidation, leverage and pressure; not imagination. Imagination is going to ultimately win, but you have to have the culture to turn that evolving focus on User Experience into business ideas that work for everyone involved. We are a group of people that can do that and we are grateful to have the chance to make it happen.
ATG: Do you have any tips for other entrepreneurs who are looking to “creatively stumble” their way to success? What are the keys to fostering innovation in what is often a hidebound industry?
MD: It is hard to say exactly. Our entire business runs on AGILE and Kanban, so it is easy to break large tasks down into manageable two week increments and change priorities quickly based on the reality of what we are seeing in front of us. You have to find a balance between keeping gas in the tank and having some vision for where you are headed. We are fortunate that the people at BiblioLabs are extraordinary and really enjoy what they are doing. They are super motivated to help libraries in this massive transition that is coming and we have enough evidence that it works to know we are doing the right work. That is also important.
ATG: You also said that libraries “face an existential threat of not being competitive for the digital attention required for new user adoption.” Can you elaborate? What strategies should libraries pursue to gain user/reader attention in an increasingly digital world?
MD: YouTube is free and (among other things) is arguably the greatest learning tool the world has ever seen. Amazon gives away millions of books for free with an Amazon Prime membership. Facebook, video games, the list just keeps going.
There are only so many hours a day to go around in between working, responsibilities and the business of life. Libraries will always serve unique niches in terms of content delivery but trying to compete on selection is a losing battle. Libraries need to focus on something they can be great at, that large media players cannot commodify. We think they can also be hugely successful as a creative and community hub for locally produced content.
ATG: What challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic posed for you and BiblioLabs? What challenges has it posed for your library clients? How are you confronting these challenges?
MD: We have been evangelizing a message to libraries to engage their local creative communities (see https://createsharediscover.com/beyond-the-bookshelf/), research communities and writing communities. We have focused on a message that puts the library at the center of those communities as a digital hub for the collection, curation and elevation of the best local content in all media. We have helped libraries collect over 15,000 eBooks (see https://indieauthorproject.com/) and tens of thousands of digital photos, pieces of art, oral histories, music, ephemera and more from their local community.
We have pushed forward for almost eight years at a very slow pace. This is a new role for the library, and to think about it at scale is intimidating. When COVID hit and the library buildings closed, they began to struggle with how to remain engaged with their patrons.
What we do fits very nicely with the transformation of library spaces to digital studios, writing centers, editing studios (we are the repository for that output). But our community engagement software and programs work just as well virtually. Library activity spiked immediately when the buildings closed. The number of projects being produced by libraries to collect things from their own communities nearly tripled in the last 9 months, with over 40 projects focused on COVID-19 time capsules and Pandemic related community art projects (see https://createsharediscover.com/pandemic-projects/).
We confronted the challenge by having amazing technology and an amazing team of people that love what they do and had been preparing for just such a challenge. We had the work as a distraction from all the trauma we were experiencing in our own lives.
ATG: Serving as “a creative and community hub for locally produced content” strikes us as an exciting opportunity for libraries. It appears that the projects you just mentioned are primarily sponsored by public libraries. Do you see a role for academic libraries, above and beyond serving as a repository?
MD: Wake Forest has done an amazing job of this under the Library Partners Press (see https://librarypartnerspress.org/) imprint set up and managed by Bill Kane. Bill has created a special atmosphere around this work and it resonates on his campus. LPP will help anyone on campus produce and publish their own works. This is a great model for any library trying to provide a service to their own local students and faculty to help them publish and distribute any kind of content: academic works, OER materials, a geology professor who wrote a romance novel, a book of photos, student bands uploading tracks to be archived by the library, MFA students building portfolios, a creative writing class doing an anthology. All of this is happening and there is a huge need for the library to offer a local service that meets creators where they are at and makes it easy to get their work archived and distributed. WF mixes the LPP locally produced content with local historical materials and other local content.
We are eager to work with more higher ed institutions, but public libraries have felt the competitive pinch of major media and escalating eBook prices more acutely in recent years, and have been more open to change. BiblioLabs provides turn-key software and support to run such a system and we have the experience and people to support higher ed libraries to make sure it succeeds.
ATG: How do you see the post-pandemic future evolving for BiblioLabs? Are there any particular growth opportunities on the horizon? Are there any new products in the offing that our readers should know about?
MD: We are going to do more of the same. We have found what we are good at and the timing is good to bring this vision for libraries as the center of the creative communities to the mainstream. We still have a long way to go.
ATG: What about potential pitfalls? What concerns you most about the way the library market is changing?
MD: Honestly, I got into this knowing almost nothing about the library market and just wanting to solve problems and build great stuff. I still mostly feel like that.
ATG: On the personal front, we understand that you and your wife recently escaped city life by moving from Charleston to start a farm. Can you tell us about that? What prompted such a major change?
MD: I guess we figured we would go all in on “new normal.” Well, it has been a lifelong dream and we planned to do something there. We bought the farm in August 2019 and it was a jungle. We were chipping away on it on weekends, etc. My wife was running a nonprofit she founded (see https://www.heartsc.org/) and had just hired an amazing replacement in January, who hit the ground running. I had a hard time imagining myself not in Charleston and adjusting, but we were thinking about it.
When COVID hit, we left Charleston on March 19th in the same state of shock everyone was in during that two-week period, but with no plans to move. As it became clear that business travel was going to stop (a real gift in many ways) and that I could get a decent Internet connection in the country (I have to drive a half hour to get cell phone access) our minds began to shift. Over the course of about 6 weeks we realized we had moved.
We have a working farm with goats, chickens and a chunk of Appalachian Mountains in which to wander and get lost. We are building a weekend micro-festival venue (50-75 people) and are just waiting for the world to turn normal to get started. The kids check us on Instagram here: Rare Bird Farm (see https://www.instagram.com/rare_bird_farm/?hl=en).