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Off the shelf, onto the laptop

15 October 2009

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With the growing popularity of electronic and digital audio books, public libraries have started expanding their online collections and are providing easy lending facilities to readers. However, publishers are worried that borrowing books electronically could cut into the sales of print editions.

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

Image credits: The New York Times/ The Lee County Library System’s e-books Web site

The lure? Electronic books she can download to her laptop.

Beginning earlier this year, 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 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 capitalise 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% of the library’s overall acquisition budget.

"The expansion of e-books into libraries heralds a future in which more reading will be done digitally"

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 organisation, has seen circulation of e-books and digital audio books rise 21% 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.

“As young people become used to reading virtually everything online,” said Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, “that is going to propel a change in terms of readership of e-books rather than readership of physical books.”

For now, the expansion will be slowed partly because, with few exceptions, e-books in libraries cannot be read on Amazon’s Kindle, the best-selling electronic reader, or on Apple’s iPhone, which has rapidly become a popular device for reading e-books.

Image credits: The New York Times/ Kate Lambert a student at Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey, Fla., is an avid user of e-books offered for loan by her county library system

Most library editions are compatible with the Sony Reader, computers and a handful of other mobile devices.

Most digital books in libraries are treated like printed ones: only one borrower can check out an e-book at a time, and for popular titles, patrons must wait in line just as they do for physical books. After two to three weeks, the e-book automatically expires from a reader’s account.

But some publishers worry that the convenience of borrowing books electronically could ultimately cut into sales of print editions.

“I don’t have to get in my car, go to the library, look at the book, check it out,” said John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, which publishes authors like Janet Evanovich, Augusten Burroughs and Jeffrey Eugenides.

“Instead, I’m sitting in the comfort of my living room and can say, ‘Oh, that looks interesting’ and download it.”

As digital collections grow, Sargent said he feared a world in which “pretty soon you’re not paying for anything.” Partly because of such concerns, Macmillan does not allow its e-books to be offered in public libraries.

Simon & Schuster, whose authors include Stephen King and Bob Woodward, has also refrained from distributing its e-books to public libraries. “We have not found a business model that works for us and our authors,” said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman.

"The purchasing model for e-books should be different than it is for print"

For now, the advent of e-book borrowing has not threatened physical libraries by siphoning away visitors because the recession has driven so many new users seeking free resources through library doors. And in some cases, few library patrons seem to know that e-book collections even exist.

In the Brooklyn Public Library system recently, eight people were waiting for three digital copies of The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, while 715 people were waiting for 526 print copies.

Some librarians suggest that because digital books never wear out, take up no shelf space and could, in theory, be read by multiple people at the same time, the purchasing model for e-books should be different than it is for print.

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