Using libraries in the age of e-books

I discovered the convenience of borrowing e-books from the library several months ago, when I was going to take a long drive and realized at the last minute that an audio book would be perfect -- but that I didn't have any available. I remembered some advice from a friend to check out my local public library, so I went to the Brooklyn Public Library site, and found that, yes, indeed, I could borrow audio books and e-books with the right software.

It made me feel -- well, good. Not only because I didn't have to pay for the e-books (which was nice, I must admit), but because I spent a lot of time in the library when I was young. Libraries are good places to be -- and don't stop being good places when they become virtual.

For mobile reading (and listening), the BPL uses an app called OverDrive, which is available on a variety of devices, including Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Mac, Windows, and Windows Phone 7. I have an Android smartphone, so that is the version I use, and all-in-all, it's not a bad app. It's fairly easy to search for and download books; my library allows you to borrow them for 14 days.

There are some issues that I find inconvenient, to say the least. There are no provisions to renew a book, even if nobody else has placed a hold on it -- which can be a problem, especially if you're borrowing an audio version of one of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels, which are long, detailed, and could never be finished inside of 14 days unless you listened to it every free moment. (You can immediately re-borrow a book, and OverDrive will put you back where you last left off, but it's an unnecessary hassle.)

But one of the main problems with borrowing books is expressed in Matt Hamblen's article -- that because of increased demand (and decreased budgets), libraries are having trouble meeting the needs of the readers who want to use them.

This doesn't surprise me -- for two reasons. First, because I actually wrote a blog entry about this back in March 2011, when HarperCollins announced a new policy in which it would only allow an e-book to be borrowed 26 times, and then would demand that the library repurchase the book -- thus placing an additional financial burden on already-strapped libraries. (Some librarians answered by creating a YouTube video in which they illustrated how many times a physical book is used before it's replaced.)

And second, because I've also hit that wall where books that I want to borrow are either on long waiting lists (although here in Brooklyn, I haven't hit waiting lists quite as long as the 20+ that are cited for the New York Public Library in the article) or, more often, are simply not available at all. And these are current books that are carried in e-book form by Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble.

I can't blame the libraries. They have to allocate their resources where they can, and e-books can cost (according to Hamblen's article) anywhere from $12 to $25 each. I look more toward publishers, who either are requiring books to be repurchased after an arbitrary number of uses or, in some cases (for example, Scribner or Simon and Schuster), aren't making new books available for purchase by libraries at all.

I understand that publishers are shy because of widespread piracy. But the United States has a long tradition of offering public libraries to children and adults for both education and enjoyment. It would be a great pity if those worthy institutions foundered because they were denied the opportunity to offer the type of digital literature that is becoming so popular today.

Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter (@BarbaraKrasnoff).

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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