Thursday, October 15, 2009

libraries wade into digital lending


NYTimes | Kate Lambert recalls using her library card just once or twice throughout her childhood. Now, she uses it several times a month.

The lure? Electronic books she can download to her laptop. Beginning earlier this year, Ms. Lambert, a 19-year-old community college student in New Port Richey, Fla., borrowed volumes in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold and a vampire novel by Laurell K. Hamilton, without ever visiting an actual branch.

“I can just go online and type my library card number in and look through all the books that they have,” said Ms. Lambert, who usually downloads from the comfort of her bedroom. And, she added, “It’s all for free.”

Eager to attract digitally savvy patrons and capitalize on the growing popularity of electronic readers, public libraries across the country are expanding collections of books that reside on servers rather than shelves.

The idea is to capture borrowers who might not otherwise use the library, as well as to give existing customers the opportunity to try new formats.

“People still think of libraries as old dusty books on shelves, and it’s a perception we’re always trying to fight,” said Michael Colford, director of information technology at the Boston Public Library. “If we don’t provide this material for them, they are just going to stop using the library altogether.”

About 5,400 public libraries now offer e-books, as well as digitally downloadable audio books. The collections are still tiny compared with print troves. The New York Public Library, for example, has about 18,300 e-book titles, compared with 860,500 in circulating print titles, and purchases of digital books represent less than 1 percent of the library’s overall acquisition budget.

But circulation is expanding quickly. The number of checkouts has grown to more than 1 million so far this year from 607,275 in all of 2007, according to OverDrive, a large provider of e-books to public libraries. NetLibrary, another provider of e-books to about 5,000 public libraries and a division of OCLC, a nonprofit library service organization, has seen circulation of e-books and digital audio books rise 21 percent over the past year.

Together with the Google books settlement — which the parties are modifying to satisfy the objections of the Department of Justice and others — the expansion of e-books into libraries heralds a future in which more reading will be done digitally.