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E-book library borrowing hits record pace

New tablet owners find a long waiting list for popular titles

January 20, 2012 06:02 AM ET

Computerworld - Holiday sales of new tablets and e-readers have catapulted e-book borrowing at many of the nation's libraries, raising the question of how libraries can keep up with demand -- especially when some publishers still balk at e-book lending.

The demand for e-books at some major public libraries more than doubled so far in December and January compared to a year ago, causing frustrations for e-book users and librarians alike.

"Demand for e-book borrowing has definitely gone up...dramatically recently," said Laura Irmscher, collection development manager for the Boston Public Library, the nation's oldest with a central library and 26 branches. She said e-book borrowing demand at the Boston libraries more than tripled in December, compared to December 2010. For the first half of January, more than 700 people a day tried to borrow an e-book, or added their name to a long waiting list for some of the more popular titles.

At the New York Public Library, 2,907 e-books and materials were checked out on Dec. 26, 2011, nearly double the 1,523 checked out on the same date in 2010, said Miriam Tuliao, assistant director of collections strategy for the library. In all, the New York Public Library has 22,000 unique e-book titles.

Libraries see increased demand

For the past three years, as e-book readers have gained popularity, librarians have noticed a big uptick in e-book borrowing each January. But this month has been especially busy. Most librarians and analysts attribute the growth to the sales of new tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire or the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, and continued strong sales of the iPad 2, as well as black-and-white e-readers selling for well below $200.

One analyst at Barclays said 5.5 million Kindle Fire tablets were sold in the fourth quarter, higher than earlier estimates by analysts that between three million and five million would be sold during that period.

While many e-book titles are available for borrowing at public libraries, there is usually a long virtual line for the most popular books.

At libraries surveyed by Computerworld in New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles, e-borrowers of John Grisham's The Litigators had to join a long waiting list. In Boston, 150 people were on a list for one of the 15 available copies of the Grisham e-book. Long waiting lists apply for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well.

Some in the e-book reading public have been disappointed by the shortage of the popular books in libraries, complaining that the e-reader and tablet industry is biased toward getting the public to buy an actual book rather than borrow it. A blogger at Actuarial Opinions complained that "practically all of the e-books are checked out, and the waiting list is usually 20+" for the New York Public Library.

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