Librarians' delight: A device that helps readers borrow e-books

Sony unveils tool to help readers find e-books on the e-shelves of local libraries

Along with a new e-reader device, Sony Electronics yesterday unveiled a tool set that's sure to delight librarians who are worried about the future of book-borrowing -- and reading.

The new Web-based Sony Library Finder tool can be used to find e-books in the local library that can be checked out, downloaded onto a desktop computer and then loaded onto a Sony Reader device -- all without charge.

The news about the library tool was buried in a press release announcing Sony's new $399 wirelessly-enabled Reader Daily Edition device that will ship in December.

Sony noted in its statement that "thousands" of libraries are already offering e-books that support Sony Reader devices, and a quick review found that more than 20 libraries in eastern Massachusetts are lending such e-books, which conform to the International Digital Publishing Forum's widely-used open format known as EPUB. Sony Readers can also access more than one million public domain Google Books in EPUB format.

Meanwhile, the New York Public Library said it had 29,000 e-books available in its systems. "Anything that promotes reading is a good thing," said a spokeswoman for the library.

Analysts welcomed the expansion of free library borrowing to handheld devices. Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at TBRI, said that could follow up Sony's move letting library patrons borrow e-books to be read on its Kindle e-reader device.

"If enough publishers and libraries participate, I think e-book borrowing will be an important advancement for e-books," said Gottheil. He said e-book purchases are growing rapidly with handheld e-readers, but many book readers are concerned about stipulations that they can't lend or resell their e-books. But borrowing an e-book might lure them into using the technology, he said.

"The opportunity to take e-books out of the library will definitely attract buyers to e-readers and probably contribute to e-book sales," Gottheil added.

Richard Doherty, an analyst at The Envisioneering Group, said he has found to be less interested than Sony in a Library Finder-type tool, at least thus far. "Amazon is saying buy a book from us or sayonara," Doherty said.

Doherty added that Sony is now exploring ways to let readers use the Reader Daily Edition to wirelessly check out e-books, either from inside the library building or from elsewhere. "Whether there is a cost for wireless borrowing is not clear," he said. Sony officials could not be reached for comment on their plans for wireless borrowing. Sony will offer buyers free wireless access to e-books over the AT&T wireless network with the Daily Edition in December.

Doherty said e-books have been available to PCs and Macs over the wired Internet for most of the decade, although he said they currently tend to be available mostly in libraries in the northeast and west where there are more libraries per capita. He did note that a "very small percentage" of all the books in most libraries are e-books.

In an era of e-book technology, libraries have felt threatened about their futures, but Doherty said the idea of e-book borrowing to a mobile device could be another stage in the advancement of libraries, which moved from schools and churches to public libraries in the 1860s, then added bookmobiles in the 1930s.

"There isn't a librarian I have met who doesn't like e-book borrowing," Doherty said. "They don't want to see the majority of books going to warehouses, whether physical warehouses or e-book warehouses."

Doherty estimated that half of the reading in the U.S. is done through libraries, and said that libraries are doing what they can to adjust to new technology, including offering many audio books and DVDs. "Librarians love reading and are really the happiest people on earth and have some of the lowest turnover," he added. "They love the people they cater to."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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