Maine’s libraries finding new life with e-books

Increasing popularity of e-readers is helping smaller libraries keep readers interested.

If you don’t see anyone inside the Wilton Free Public Library, it doesn’t mean no one is checking out a book.

The library had a dramatic rise over the past two years in electronic books borrowed on e-readers, such as Kindle and Nook. The growth of digital book circulation in Wilton matches similar growth at libraries across the state, though it is uncertain how the use might change the state’s libraries long-term.

The electronic books — e-books — can be checked out by downloading them online. Digital books are automatically deleted from the e-reader once they’re “due” back at the library.

In 2011, the first year e-books and online audiobooks were available to patrons of the Wilton library, residents borrowed 83 titles. In 2012, 387 titles were borrowed, according to David Olsen, the Wilton library’s director. He said 418 digital books have been borrowed so far this year.

“We’re still in the early stages of this, and it’s impossible to predict how this will change libraries,” he said.

The growth of borrowed e-books in Wilton is mirrored statewide as more libraries subscribe to the state wide e-book and audio book collection.

Olsen said libraries across the state seek to meet readers where they are and adopt the new technology as a way of lending books.

Readers of traditional books dropped from 72 percent to 67 percent nationally from 2011 to 2012, and in that same time period those owning a tablet or e-reader rose from 18 percent to 33 percent, according to a Pew Internet Research Center survey.

Three years ago, the state created the Maine InfoNet Download Library, an online book collection that can be accessed through local and university libraries across the state that chose to participate in the program.

As of September, there were 4,286 audiobooks and 7,083 e-books available for borrowing in the state book exchange.

Olsen, who prefers e-books for his personal reading, pointed out that paper books were once a new technology and said people should not be concerned that going paperless will hurt reading or libraries.

“We’re about connecting people with literature, not specifically paper books. Libraries are about literature and learning,” he said.

For small rural libraries with limited hours and a skeleton staff, such as Wilton’s, the e-books provide residents access to library books at any time and day, instead of the times the library is open.

“For smaller towns and smaller populations, it’s not as much of a financial burden,” said Janet McKenney, Maine director of library development.

E-books are an economical option for small-town libraries because subscription costs to the state digital book collection are based on town population. Towns with fewer than 1,000 residents pay $150 annually to subscribe to thousands of titles and those with 25,000 or more pay $1,700.

James Jackson Sanborn, executive director of Maine InfoNet, which hosts the download library along with other online information, said the state download library was paid for in 2008 by a $40,000 grant and now is funded by libraries that subscribe to the system. About 100 libraries immediately subscribed, and now more than 200 out of 275 libraries in the state do so, including college libraries.

Sanborn said the amount of digital book checkouts has increased rapidly statewide each year since the system went into effect.

In August 2010, 4,301 titles were borrowed online in the state. By August the next year, that number more than doubled to 11,729 checkouts, and there were 20,739 books downloaded in August 2012. The number leveled off slightly this August, with 27,742 titles borrowed and 7,444 new users.

Sanborn said the state system allows small libraries to participate in the new technology without taking on upfront costs such as buying Overdrive, the software used for lending e-books.

“There’s no way the small libraries could do this on their own,” he said.
 
Acessible, flexible
While new technology has a reputation as a young person’s game, McKenney said her departmant has received positive feedback from the state’s older patrons, many of whom have poor eyesight and can adjust the font of the digital books to make it bigger.

Libraries generally have a broader selection of digital books compared to large print books, so the new option has broadened the selection for those with trouble seeing the pages.

“It’s wonderful from an accessibility standpoint,” she said. “Older people have really embraced it.”
One of the struggles has been to keep up with the demand, McKenney said.

Digital rights agreements restrict the amount of people who can have an e-book downloaded at the same time.

“There’s a waiting list for a lot of e-books. We might purchase five copies, and there might be 50 people on a waiting list,” she said.

While new technology has a reputation as a young person’s game, McKenney said, her departmant has received positive feedback from the state’s older library patrons, many of whom have poor eyesight and can adjust the font of the digital books to make it bigger.

Libraries generally have a broader selection of digital books compared to large-print books, so the new option has broadened the selection for those with trouble seeing the pages.

“It’s wonderful from an accessibility standpoint,” she said. “Older people have really embraced it.”
Shelby Monroe, a librarian at Lithgow Public Library, said the Augusta library teaches a monthly class called eBook 101, to help people learn to use e-readers and borrow digital books.

She said librarians frequently are asked for technical help by patrons, and the class, taught every fourth Wednesday at 1 p.m., is a way for librarians to answer questions people face to face.

Monroe said about 400 e-books and audio books are checked out each month at the Augusta library by a diverse group of people, including elderly patrons who take advantage of the ability to make the font larger.

“A lot of well-meaning children give e-readers to parents and grandparents, and then they have to learn how to use this new technology,” she said.

Librarians said e-books themselves have caught on at a faster rate than library borrowing has, though the awareness gap is closing.

Awareness that local libraries offered digital books grew from 24 percent to 31 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to a Pew Internet Research Center survey.

Irene Gillman, 89, of Vassalboro, doesn’t borrow digital books from the library yet; but she said switching from print to e-books has been a way for her to read without a magnifying glass, which she said it was hard to balance when holding it along with the book.

She said she’s considering renting e-books from the library.

“It’s something I’ve toyed around with, but I suppose I’ve just never gotten around to it. I’m all for any way to spread availability. It would be a good way to access a lot of books without having to buy them,” she said.
 
Digital rights management
McKenney said librarians across the country are learning to navigate the tricky new landscape of digital book borrowing. Digital rights restrictions are the subject of what McKenney expects to be a well-attended session at an upcoming conference of both the New England Library Association and Maine Library Association.

Originally libraries operated under the rule of “right of first sale,” Sanborn said.

“The publishers control the first sale, but once you physically bought the book, you can do anything that doesn’t violate copyright, like resell it or lend it to a friend,” he said.

He said with digital books, copyright rules change. Book publishers don’t sell a book to a library, but sell the rights to lease a digital copy of the book.

“Because they sell a license, they can put restrictions that they can’t when they sell the physical object,” he said.

Some publishers sell e-books at double the price to libraries than what they charge to a individual customer, saying the rights to a digital book are more valuable than a hard copy because the e-book will never wear out from years of leasing.

“Big publishers like Random House can charge $75 or $85 for the same e-book that would be a $9 charge to a regular person. They say it’s more valuable to a library, because it never wears out from lending,” he said.

Others add restrictions on the number of people that can “check out” a digital book at a time or restrict the number of times a book can be borrowed before the library must pay more money to renew the lease on the book.

Sanborn said publishers have coined the term “friction” for the obstacles they have intentionally created to make it less convenient to borrow an e-book.

“They want it to have more friction to preserve their market,” he said.

He said despite ongoing negotiations with publishers at the state level, the e-book system serves its purpose for local libraries.

“It’s not a perfect system, but we’ve got something that lets small libraries at least get their feet wet and keep up with the technology,” he said.
 
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
kschroeder@centralmaine.com