At the same time all of us at libraries and library systems have been dodging and weaving through the pandemic, there been a whole bookselling industry working alongside of us.  To get some insight into their experience Frank McDonald of Baker & Taylor (B&T) was gracious enough to answer a few questions.  

Please tell us a little bit about your role at B&T?

These days my role is more administrative. My title is Vice President of Public Library Sales for the Eastern part of the US. In that capacity, I support the Field Sales Consultants who manage communications on a day-to-day basis and relationships with those partner libraries in the eastern “half” of the country.

I’ve had a varied background within the company, which I hope has helped me (and them) to really understand and facilitate our library partners’ workflows as they’ve gone through the many, many changes they experience each day (ILS transitions, staffing changes, new priorities such as digital and community outcome-oriented strategic planning, etc.) I’m also fortunate enough to be included in our company’s strategic planning and product development efforts.


How has the pandemic changed your work?

By mid-March 2020, a little over 80% of our public library customer base had “shut down,” so to speak, to the point where they had requested that our company stop shipping any product to them, so that was truly something we’d never seen before. Our contacts with customers became almost exclusively email-based at first, with a gradual transition to combinations of email, phone calls, and the adoption of Microsoft® Teams, Zoom, and other forms of virtual meetings and conferencing.

I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say that we so look forward to the time when we can resume on-site visits and meetings to the extent that our customers are comfortable. I personally feel there is just no substitute for “being there;” being on-site just facilitates those questions about how the library process works: “Why again do you do this in the back office? What’s the benefit of how these cartons are organized in the receiving area?” and so on. It will be very interesting to see how our customers’ preferences for meetings evolve, as it’s almost hard to remember the pre-pandemic experiences.

We do miss that personal contact though, which we’ve always felt has been a critical part of cultivating the most successful partnerships with our customers. At our distribution facilities, the re-engineering of many workstations to provide for social distancing, staggering of breaks and lunchtimes, and other efforts to minimize any congregating have posed challenges that we continue to adapt to and address as they arise.


How has it impacted book sales?

Certainly, our physical print sales have been significantly reduced, as our library partners were closed for so many months. This has created an acceleration in the interest and adoption of digital eBook and eAudio content, which has been a silver lining to so many of the clouds we’ve been living under this past year.

Our company has seen significant growth and interest in our digital offerings; we’re very grateful to have this digital dimension to our company, which is certainly a big part of our future. I think the breadth of what public libraries purchase from a supplier like Baker & Taylor has also changed somewhat, in that because so many libraries are offering only curbside pickup and high-visibility title services, that experience of browsing and discovery for library customers has been more limited these past months. We’ve seen a bit of a change in the product mix our customers purchase, but we do believe there’s a real yearning for life to return to those more normal and precious experiences.

I think back to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012 – that too was a time of much conjecture and writing about how “digital everything” was coming. But especially in the boroughs of New York City, it was the neighborhood libraries and branches that became gathering points for information, for charging devices, for gathering for support, and I feel there was a bit of a revival of the critical importance of those community locations. I hope that as we are able to move back to more “normal,” there will be a renewed sense of the importance of community, gathering, and experiencing that libraries have always been a central part of, and I believe will be at that time more than ever!


B&T is also a software company. Has the pandemic changed your company's plans around software?

I feel we’ve been looking at the landscape with an eye toward the short-, intermediate-, and long-term perspectives. I personally feel like the printed, physical book is just a uniquely precious entity that can’t be overstated. That said, we need to, and are continuing to evolve as an organization. With a focus on Community Outcomes and the impact that being part of the family-owned Follett company brings, we have a unique opportunity to partner with them to bring services and content to young people in schools – through partnerships between schools and libraries.

Our digital platform is called Axis 360, and includes an integrated Community Share Program that creates just that partnership between library and school –delivering curated content to students via the public library’s digital repository. So many studies we’ve read of in the past have always lamented the need for greater school and library collaboration – Community Share does just that. I’m very proud of the fact that Baker & Taylor has sought strategic partnerships with companies like Highlights Magazine to deliver children’s eBooks and activities to readers during these past months, and PressReader to deliver digital newspapers and magazines during this time when they’ve been unavailable in the traditional sense from the public library building.

We’ve created digital Book Club solutions, and Book Clubs specifically in support of independent authors, and have just introduced a Sustainable Shelves Program to enable libraries to earn revenue by returning unwanted library materials. We’re launching a Cataloging service called BTCatto offers alternatives and solutions around the cataloging experience, and of course, our Collection HQ and ESP (Enhanced Selection Planning) services we feel are the premier data analytics solutions in the industry.


What do you expect for B&T in the future?

I like to think I’m a wide-eyed optimist; I’ve been with Baker & Taylor for almost 34 years which is quite frightening (I’m a lifer!), but at the same time also so rewarding. I’ve had the privilege of having a career that has given me the opportunity to see the impact and role that libraries play in their communities, and the passion and creativity they’ve continued to employ as part of the “leading edge” of how we continue to improve.

The commitment that I’ve seen our library partners continue to have for their communities is indeed inspiring, and to be part of an organization that is a partner to such work is very humbling. I feel like the focus and strategic commitment our company has made toward the digital future while maintaining a priority for our print“past, present, and future,” puts us in a very strategic position to continue to be the premier partner for public libraries. 


Do you have any thoughts on the Rural Libraries Round Table logo?

I have extended family that farm in Nebraska, and they like to tease me as to my challenges discerning alfalfa from soybeans from other crops. My initial Rorschach response to the logo was that the two smaller leaves made me think of eyes peering back at me from behind the stalk. If that speaks volumes, I welcome any helpful analysis! Thank you to all our wonderful NY libraries for their support and partnership –now more than ever!”


Thank you, Frank, for your work and your time answering my questions!

Robert Drake is the Assistant Director for Technology Operations at the Nassau Library System. He listens to soviet synthwave before board meetings. The views and positions here expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of NLS, Robert Drake himself, or probably anyone...