E-books for everybody? Libraries struggle to provide digital books
Visitors to the Tonganoxie Public Library are letting director Kelly Fann know that they aren’t there just for traditional paper books.
“I do a one-on-one with a patron at least once a day with an e-reader device, whether it’s an iPhone, an iPad, or a Kindle, or a Nook, you name it,” she said.
Though a recent national study found that 62 percent of the population was unaware e-books were available at local libraries, that’s not the case for the Tonganoxie library’s regular patrons.
“Most of our community knows that e-books are available, it’s just not the ones they want, or the hold list (for the e-book) is just as long as it is for the book form, if there even is the book available that they want,” Fann said. “So there are a lot of frustrations to get over with it.”
As e-reader devices become more common, area libraries — like libraries across the country — are facing multiple obstacles when it comes to providing their community with the digital option of the books on their shelves. But library directors say staying up to date with e-books is an important service to the community.
At the Basehor Community Library, patrons are a little bit ahead of the curve: for the past year, the library has been offering e-reader devices for check-out and has been able to offer a wider selection of e-books than many libraries. But Diana Weaver, the library director, explained two major obstacles for libraries with e-books in a presentation for the Association for Rural and Small Libraries that she called “Aiming for a Moving Target:” what publishers decide to make available for libraries, and the cost of keeping up with technology.
“Things change constantly in that market and especially in the way that publishers and vendors relate to libraries,” she said. “Probably one of the things that people don’t realize is libraries can’t get a lot of the e-books that you can get from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.”
Nationally, the number of people who read e-books is growing, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. In mid-December 2011, 17 percent of American adults reported reading an e-book in the previous year; by February 2012, the number had increased to 21 percent.
So area library directors say the need to provide e-book services is important not because paper books are becoming obsolete — indeed, the same Pew surveys found 88 percent of e-book readers also reported reading paper books — but because e-books are becoming an important part of providing the community with reading material.
“When you look at the decision to go into e-books, it’s really long-range — we have to start building the ability to have it and to solve the problems up front, otherwise, it will pass us by, and there will be a whole group of people who will never have a shot at it,” said David Hanson, director of the Linwood Community Library. “I think it’s a solution you have to invest in, otherwise you won’t be there when whatever happens to e-books happens to e-books.”
Weaver said it falls in line with libraries’ mission to educate the community and to provide equal access for all.
“Our purpose is to teach people to learn about the things that they hear about or they are curious about,” she said.
Kim Beets, director of the Bonner Springs City Library, also said the new method of reading seems to be encouraging more people to read.
“I think e-books are creating this whole new generation of readers,” she said.
Library directors say most patrons aren’t aware why libraries are limited in what e-books they are able to provide. One roadblock is limitations publishers are enforcing that are not enforced on paper editions.
“Publishers are in somewhat of a bad situation because they’re looking at what happened to music,” Weaver said. “When music became digital, with Napster and everything, it really tanked the music publishers’ market, and the publishers are afraid the same thing is going to happen with the book market.”
So some publishers aren’t making e-books immediately available — for example, the Harry Potter series just became available for libraries in the e-book market. A few publishers won’t even allow sales of e-books to libraries.
Other publishers are ramping up costs: Random House has increased pricing to libraries by 300 percent. Another publisher increased costs by 104 percent for libraries. Best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey” costs $9.99 as a consumer e-book; libraries are charged $47.85 for the same digital title. On printed books, libraries typically get discounts from consumer prices.
Digital rights management software in each e-book file ensures that it is used basically in the same way as a paper book. E-books can’t be copied, and once a check-out period is up, access to the book files is blocked, though they are not deleted from the device.
And publishers are enforcing limits on the number of times an e-book is read — for example, Harper Collins has decided a digital copy may be checked out just 26 times, and then a library would have to repurchase the book.
Weaver said publishers view this as 26 people reading a book that is only being purchased once. But she said publishers don’t consider that those 25 people might not have bought the book anyway — they might not have read it at all, or borrowed it from someone else.
“(Publishers) are looking at libraries more closely than they ever have before,” she said. “They’re not recognizing the value libraries always provided for them, which is discovering new authors, promoting the very culture of reading, which has always built their business. But they’re not seeing that right now.”
Digital book technology in itself is another roadblock for libraries: the digital book formats are not all compatible with the multitude of e-reader devices.
If libraries buy a file for Amazon’s Kindle, it won’t work on the Barnes & Noble Nook — forcing them to buy every e-book at least twice. The various formats and e-reader devices also make it hard to keep library staff trained on their use, as well as adding difficulty in training the public on how to use them. Weaver said when her library tried to have an e-reader class in January, their patrons brought seven different types of Kindles alone.
“We’ve had classes, and basically we’ve just come down to saying bring in your device and we’ll teach you how to use it,” she said. “So the idea that we can keep up with this technology makes it a real challenge for us.”
Hanson said this is libraries’ “second time at the rodeo” with downloadable content. The first time, libraries tried to support audio books, but the service providing audio books for libraries didn’t support iPods, which became the dominant portable audio device.
“The lessons learned from that experience are that if you can’t deliver on the hardware of choice, it makes it incredibly difficult,” he said.
That lesson is being repeated with e-books, leaving local libraries searching for a solution. In Kansas, anyone with a state library card can check out e-books through the state’s EZ Library. However, that service, provided through technology conglomerate 3M Co., does not provide e-book formats for older versions of one of the most popular e-readers, the Amazon Kindle.
“Kansas has been really, really innovative as far as pushing libraries into the e-book market and really making them available,” Beets said. “But a big barrier has been that a lot of patrons have the Kindle, and (Amazon) only wants to work with one vendor.”
That vendor is OverDrive, and a consortium of Kansas libraries is joining that service in order to open e-book checkouts to patrons with Kindles.
The Basehor library has had a contract for the past year with OverDrive through the Sunflower E-library consortium. Made up of about 20 libraries in the state, consortium members sign individual contracts with OverDrive for access to a shared collection, but each individual library can purchase just books for its own patrons.
The Bonner Springs and Linwood libraries are joining the consortium and will launch OverDrive by the end of the year; Bonner hopes to have e-readers available for checkout after the first of the year. Fann said Tonganoxie is trying to join the consortium to launch in early 2013.
The Johnson County Library has found another solution that will work with newer Kindle Fires. Andrew Wathen, collection development manager, said the library has a contract with book distributor Baker and Taylor for its digital medial library, Axis 360, which the library is currently testing and hopes to make available to patrons by the end of the year.
Wathen said because the new Kindle Fires function as an Android device, users can download applications to read different file formats from Axis 360.
“So the new Kindle is going to be fine,” he said, adding that the library has purchased $300,000 worth of e-book content. “We’re very excited about delivering the product, which we think will be very versatile and works on most devices.” He said information about that service will be posted on the library’s website when it is available.
Other libraries aren’t ready to take further steps. Kathy Johnston, director at the Baldwin City Library, said while it has some patrons ask about e-books, the library staff directs them to the state service. They don’t have plans to provide a service for Kindle users just yet.
“We hope that the state library would get that ironed out, and we would contribute to that,” Johnston said. “If not, then we may reconsider.”