Libraries check out the eBook

NY Public LibraryAcross the U.S., thousands of libraries are embracing eBooks. No longer the familiar home of tomes and periodicals only, these foundations are now using new technology for more than just computerizing their catalogues. Libraries, like so many other businesses of the book, are eager to attract the digitally savvy new generation. This downloadable wave has been a gradual transition for the library, and the books of yesterday are not yet extinct. The New York Public library currently offers over 17,000 eBook titles, just a fraction of their 800,000 circulating print titles. Comparing these numbers, it’s obvious that eBook acquisitions still represent a small percentage of their budget.

Why the seeming reticence to stock up on eBooks? It’s not only because the library still clings to the spine (pardon the pun) of its institution, which lies in the not so modern, good old fashioned pages of yester-year. The road to eBook downloads, as history has proven (i.e. Google) is often a bumpy one. One obstacle libraries face is the inability to keep up with new devices now dominating the industry. Although most libraries offer eBooks that are compatible with computers, Sony Reader and a handful of other digital devices, many of their downloadable offerings cannot be read on Amazon’s Kindle or the Apple’s iphone, both very popular e-readers. Another issue slowing down eBook acquisitions for libraries is the publishers themselves. Many publishers are thus far loath to permit eBook versions of their print copies to be allowed in libraries, due to concerns it will decrease sales of their print editions. This decision comes despite the fact that checking out a downloadable eBook greatly mirrors a checkout of a print copy. Instead of physically walking out of a library with book copy in hand, all is done at home, or anywhere else, with a digital device. The differences, in the instance of library patronage, seem more academic than financial.

Yet even in the wake of these problems, eBook circulation is expanding at an amazing rate. eBook checkouts have increased to more than one million in 2009, up from 600,000 in 2007, according to OverDrive. eBooks are quickly proving an unstoppable force, and opening the floodgates have given libraries the chance to increase readership and cater to a new age of information seekers. Downloading a book in the comfort of home is no longer just a concept for most. It’s a daily reality. For libraries, it is still a relatively new venture, riddled with many obstacles, but even more opportunities.

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