Friday, June 10, 2011

Public libraries and e-books

- McClatchy Newspapers
June 8, 2011
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The public library has a simple and awesome system. Check out any book for free, as long as you promise to return it.
What could revolutionize this hallmark of civilized life? The electronic reader, a device that has been flying off the shelves.
It's news to a lot of folks, but many public libraries across the country offer digital books that can be read on such devices as a Nook or, with the right app, a smartphone. The potential is enormous: book-borrowing without the physical limits. Any book, any time, right?
"Some of the waiting lists are long," said Adam Wathen, collection development manager at Johnson County, Kan., Library. It's the same at Kansas City Public Library, director Crosby Kemper III said.
And most everywhere else. One digital library advocate found a waiting list of 127 for an e-copy of a book about chess champion Bobby Fischer at the New York Public Library.
Public library collections are mainly made up of physical books, of course, but libraries have begun contracting with e-book suppliers for lending digital books. The way the system works now, a copy of an e-book, just like a physical book, can be lent out one at a time.
But along with music and movies in the young digitized world, the handling, so to speak, of digital books is in flux.
Shari Shawo, a librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County, Kan., Public Library, teaches a class on how to borrow e-books. People are "tickled" with their reading devices, she said, and eager to learn about e-book borrowing.
Using their library cards, patrons can go to the library's website and download an e-book to their computer and then to their e-reader, much like buying music on iTunes.
"There are a lot of steps," Shawo said. "I try to make it as simple as possible."
The digital library is always open, and e-book patrons never make late returns because digital books return themselves. At the end of the borrowing term, the e-reader can no longer access the digital copy.
No doubt readers are getting comfortable with the idea of digital books. Amazon announced this month that for the first time it is selling more e-books than physical books.
Libraries, often strapped for cash, will have trouble keeping up with that trend. Their digital collections are building, but it will take time.
So given the limits, it's partly a good thing that many people haven't heard of e-book borrowing. Gale Hansen of Shawnee, a longtime book club member who loves her e-reader, didn't realize library websites offered digital borrowing, but she said she definitely is interested.
"People have asked me about borrowing books and I've always said, 'Oh no, you can't do that,'" she said.
Mitra Templin of De Soto, Kan., got her Nook reader last August. She's a member of the Johnson County Library board and knew that the library offered e-books. The first book she tried to borrow was a best-seller, "The Help," and she was put on a waiting list (as she would have been for the physical version, too).
But Templin received an email message in a couple of weeks that the book was available. And although some titles she sought weren't available, she borrowed two - "The Speed of Dark" and "Undaunted Courage" - without a wait.
"I thought it was very easy," Templin said.
Johnson County Library spends about $2.5 million a year on physical holdings and about $50,000 on e-books and audiobooks. About 11,000 titles are available to borrow electronically, Wathen said.
Kansas City Public Library has about 2,000 digital books for checkout to e-readers and other devices and several thousand largely nonfiction titles that are downloadable, but not to e-readers. Kemper said the library expects to increase its e-book numbers dramatically this year.
Libraries don't deal directly with book publishers for digital content but contract with suppliers. A company called OverDrive is the biggest.
The Nook, which is sold by Barnes & Noble, and many other e-readers are compatible with OverDrive offerings, but Amazon's Kindle is not, for now. Just last month, Amazon announced an agreement with OverDrive that will take effect "later this year."
"That's huge," said David Lee King, digital branch and services manager in Topeka. "Almost every week now something is changing."
There are many other challenges.
Not all publishers make e-books available to libraries and their suppliers. And recently, major book publisher HarperCollins sent a jolt through the library community with this decision: Its e-titles could be purchased by a library for a total of 26 loans. After that, the library would have to buy another copy.
That pronouncement angered many librarians and managers. It didn't sit well with Wathen, although he understands that publishers need to get paid for their products.
"Twenty-six seems really low when you compare that to a physical book," he said.
Kemper agrees that HarperCollins' rule, which hasn't yet been adopted by other publishers, is too restrictive. Forty-five to 60 would be more accurate for the average life of a book, but the actual number depends on the type of book, he said.
A popular author in paperback might last only 30 readings. But other books could last 100 borrowings or more, he said.
"Almost certainly all the big book publishers will adopt some restrictions," Kemper said. "That's inevitable."
King said other models are emerging, including pay per use. The library would pay 25 cents, say, for each use, with a limit on the number of uses per year.
In that model, more than one digital copy could be checked out at a time. King supports a nonprofit group,, that is looking for solutions to the problems of electronic borrowing.
"We're all evolving," Kemper said. "Ultimately the publisher is an intermediary between the reader and the author. And there has to be a way for the author to get paid."

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