Libraries, learning, pandemic challenges, and the future.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Learning is in the details. Amandeep Kochar reacted to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Beacon of the Public Library” with his own LinkedIn comment, citing, “Let There Be Light.” – the words carved over Andrew Carnegie’s hometown library in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1883. A fitting detail to point out, considering his current role: “Aman” Kochar is the Executive Vice President and Business Head for Baker & Taylor, the Library Solutions division of Follett Company. He is responsible for leading global public and academic library sales, supply chain, technology, partnership strategy and publisher relations and the overall P&L. He also takes on global product engineering and International Operations accountability for Baker & Taylor. Aman joined Baker & Taylor in 2014.
‘The move to a hybrid print and digital materials library, data driven decision making for materials acquisition, conscious efforts to diversify library collections, community engagement models which include outreach services and library-school partnership is very interesting for us.’
Previously, he was Chief Product Officer/SVP Product Development with McGraw-Hill. Aman has a Master’s degree in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s Degree in Technology.
Aman is an EdTech Leadership Award Winner for “Global Leader” as part of The EdTech Awards 2021 from EdTech Digest. To that, he says: “Thank you EdTech Digest for this incredible honor. I am thrilled to win the global leadership category among a stellar list of finalists.” Humbly, he adds: “Dedicating this to my team at Baker & Taylor and Follett that makes me look good every day while serving the purpose of literacy-driven community outcomes.”
And what about his own reading selection—what brings light to him? His favorite books (lately) are “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss and “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World?” and “Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling.
Congratulations on your EdTech Leadership Award, Aman, but let’s get right down to business: how has the business evolved over the years to continue meeting the needs of public libraries?
Baker & Taylor has evolved from a resource provider to a community outcomes provider. We are constantly challenging ourselves to serve our library partners and their communities. Studies have shown that lower literacy rates are linked to increased incarceration rates, substance abuse and higher school dropout rates and many more social success parameters. It is our mission to support libraries in their efforts to serve their communities. With solutions like Pop Up Libraries that allow libraries to share their digital collection with partners at the local grocery story, DMV, hospital or even airport, and Community Share which allows libraries to expand local school’s access to content for students and educators, Baker & Taylor remains laser-focused on improving community outcomes through literacy and learning.
Education broadly and ideally would leverage the benefits of technology to enrich the lives of learners. How do your products and technology services enrich the lives of the patrons they serve?
Baker & Taylor makes reading accessible for all ages. Through our digital platform Axis 360 (Browser or App), readers on the go have a whole new way to experience their favorite titles. With more than a million e-books and digital audiobooks, titles are instantly delivered to a patron’s device. We’ve worked closely with technology and publisher partners to provide unique materials and programming through Axis 360. We are now also able to provide access to over 7,000 top magazine and news publications to patrons via Axis 360. At a time when access to the news was of the utmost importance, we were able to provide a solution. We also launched Virtual Book Clubs to give library patrons the book club feel from the safety of their own home. We continue to feature several monthly titles each month, along with marketing materials, discussion guides and live author chats that have been well-received by our library partners and patrons alike. We strive to ensure that libraries have access to a multitude of formats and titles, meeting patrons where they are at.
‘We strive to ensure that libraries have access to a multitude of formats and titles, meeting patrons where they are at.’
It’s been an unprecedented last couple of years. Tell me about how you shifted gears to accommodate for so many recent challenges.
Internally, our priority was keeping our team members safe. Our service centers remained open throughout the pandemic and continued to operate. We enhanced our cleaning practices, mandated mask and glove usage, restricted company travel and used work from home solutions where possible based on job role. Despite the shift in our work environment, we knew there was a need to pivot to digital solutions to continue servicing our library partners.
We recognized that libraries needed to continue supporting their employees while at the same time fundraising for their organization, at a time when Friends of the Library sales were not possible. Baker & Taylor launched the Sustainable Shelves Program which gave libraries the opportunity to weed their collection of unwanted and not circulated titles from their shelves, while giving them credit for any books resold in the second-hand market.
Any books that are not able to be resold are recycled responsibly. Librarians often found time during the pandemic to clean up their collection and make it more relevant for when patrons returned to the shelves. In addition, we offered students and their families access to several hundred children’s e-books with corresponding age-appropriate activities around a theme. If a student read a book about pets, they would then pick an activity where they could create a collar for their pet. It was a way to connect with our libraries and their patrons when physical connection was impossible.
Finally, we worked closely with our library partners as they determined how they would reopen. Communication between our customers and our team throughout the pandemic was integral, but especially when it came to reopening. Our customers had been put on stop ship when their libraries closed, so it was imperative that we stay in touch to understand their plans to reopen and begin serving their patrons with print content again.
What was your philosophy of leadership in uncertain times, both internally with your team members and externally with customers you serve?
During the pandemic, my mantra for myself and team members was to live with “grit and kindness.” We were and are all facing a world of uncertainty and I watched as my team members persevered despite the challenges they were experiencing, both personally and professionally, to deliver on our mission to serve our customers. I observed many instances where kindness was spread and shown to one another, whether it was by sending notes of encouragement and support through the mail or spontaneous team events via virtual conferencing platforms.
We experienced unprecedented times together and it was incredibly important to recognize that we were all fighting a unique battle as the pandemic wore on. I communicated frequently with our team members via recurring meetings, town halls and regular email communications and externally with our customer partners as the waves of the pandemic ebbed and flowed and we saw libraries opening and then closing again. I felt it was important to share hope and a realistic view of what our business was enduring through these difficult times.
‘I felt it was important to share hope and a realistic view of what our business was enduring through these difficult times.’
What surprised you the most about how customers responded to the pandemic?
Baker & Taylor customers endured the pandemic with perseverance, innovation and empathy. Not a day went by where we didn’t hear encouraging stories about a library offering services to their community that went above and beyond. Whether it was providing pickup services for books or allowing those that needed wi-fi to access the library signal from a parking lot, libraries were determined to continue being a light for their patrons.
We were impressed and humbled by the eagerness with which librarians signed on for our innovative, virtual solutions, all in an effort to keep serving and giving the community access to materials. It certainly kept our hopes up and to keep thinking of new ways to provide solutions.
What are the greatest benefits to public libraries collaborating with schools?
Just like any institution, school libraries have finite resources and partnering with the local public library allows them access to a wider collection to serve students from different backgrounds with varying interests. With an expanded breadth and depth of content, students are exposed to subjects and materials that they may not have been previously.
With Baker & Taylor’s Community Share program, students can access library content from the current ILS system they use daily and we have the pleasure of helping to create lifelong library patrons.
‘The future is extremely bright for libraries as they continuously evolve to serve their communities.’
Both schools and libraries invest heavily in diverse collections that allow patrons to see themselves in the pages of a book and partnering allows for the maximum use of public funds and opens the door for future collaborations. In our mind this is a win-win-win situation for these institutions and the community they serve.
What future trends are you paying the most attention to—and why those?
The future is extremely bright for libraries as they continuously evolve to serve their communities. We are paying attention to the how the materials, software and services needs are changing at the library. The move to a hybrid print and digital materials library, data driven decision making for materials acquisition, conscious efforts to diversify library collections, community engagement models which include outreach services and library-school partnership is very interesting for us. We have customer innovation meetings every month where we brainstorm new ideas with customers.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]