Borrowing eBooks from your local library – a first look

The Public Library where I live has an impressive system of collaboration throughout the region. Five county library systems merged in 1968, serving their respective jurisdictions. The Timberland Regional Library consists of 27 libraries and 7 library service partners located across the five counties of Gray’s Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, and Thurston counties in Southwest Washington.

For me, that is impressive because where I come from, we have a library system that was unreliable, abused, and severely underappreciated. Collaboration was non-existent. If your local library did not have what you needed, or it was defaced in anyway, you were simply out of luck. Even if they were able to collaborate, it would take days for anything to get to your local branch.

Chances are the way this library system works is unremarkable for most you who are reading this article. The catalog is online and accessible via the internet with your library card. If your local library does not have a copy on hand, you can put a hold on the book and it will arrive from a nearby location within 2 working days. You get notifications via email or text message, at which time you can walk into your local library, pick up your book off the “Hold” shelves, and check yourself out electronically with your library card in tow.

How does that work for eBooks?

Now that’s all well and good for physical books, but we are all eBook enthusiasts, aren’t we?

I searched my library website for eBook downloads, thinking this would be especially easy now that public libraries are now participating in the Kindle eBook lending program. Timberland Regional library has an online catalog for eBooks as well as physical books. Once I had found the eBook catalog and started browsing, two things struck me.

The first is that out of 100 eBooks in the catalog, approximately 25 of them had copies available for checkout. Clearly eBooks are far more popular than most of us can envision. If 75% of the libraries catalog is already checked out to someone’s device, that’s saying a lot.

The second thing I noticed is that for each book in the catalog, Timberland Regional only had 1 copy on their “shelves”. Something about this bothers me. It’s an eBook; a virtual item that has no quantitative mass. How then is it possible to limit the number of copies available to only 1? What is the thinking behind that strategy?

The process was fairly simple, if not lengthy, to borrow the eBook. The eBook listing had a link to “Add to cart”. Once I had clicked that link, I had the option to either continue browsing or to go straight to checkout. Checkout was simply ensuring I was logged in under my library card, choosing the length of my borrowing period (I had the option for 7, 14, and 28 days) and choosing checkout. This screen also told me how many eBooks I was allowed to have out at once and how many I would have after processing this “cart”. One checked out, I got a link to “Get Kindle Book” which took me to the Amazon website. From there, I was able to send the eBook straight to my Kindle once logged in.

And incidentally, that Amazon is involved directly in lending eBooks via your public library was cause for contention quite recently too when Overdrive announced it had made a deal with Amazon to facilitate eBook lending to Kindle owners.

“The fact that library lending for Kindle users is specifically handled through customers’ existing accounts probably sets many publishers’ teeth on edge. It even rankles some readers, since in a way it turns public libraries into Amazon storefronts for e-books.” (From the Digital Trends article: Will piracy kill e-book lending?)

At least eBooks are actually available for borrowing now – that much we should be thankful for, I guess. It’s certainly a step in the right direction. This scenario reminds me that there are still a number of people who have not been able to grasp the concept of virtuality and what it means just yet. It also reminds me that the concept of virtuality is still a new one and in it’s growing stages. It will take a while before it is fully mature and working for all concerned.

In the meantime, I am going to read through my borrowed library eBook so that I can return it for the next person in line. I’m not sure I want to start paying late fees on my borrowed eBooks just yet.

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  • The reason Timberland usually only has one or a handful of digital copies of an ebook is because we have to pay for every single one. Timberland pays for a license for a single ebook from Overdrive (our ebook vendor). Sometimes we can distribute that single ebook an infinite amount of times. But, with some publishers we have to re-up the license after a limited amount of checkouts.

    To put things in perspective in terms of our budget, TRL will spend about $3 million each year on new materials, about $150,000 (rough rough estimate) of that will be in ebooks.

    Timberland trustee, Thurston County

    • Thank you for your feedback, Emmett. I am truly appreciative of your viewpoint on this. It’s always wonderful to get feedback from those in the know.

      Don’t get me wrong, though. I understand fully the library’s perspective on this – those are the rules set by the publishers and distributors. Nothing you guys can do about it. It’s the publishers and the distributors that I am wondering about. And chances are I am over-simplifying the situation quite a bit – but it still seems rather odd to me that it would cost *more* for eBooks than it does for physical books.

      • Camille,

        It doesn’t always cost more for an eBook than for a physical book (and it never should–you are right there). However, you can’t expect an author or publisher to allow a library to buy one copy of a book and loan it to two people at the same time. You CAN’T do that with a print copy and the eBook distributor (usually Overdrive) has placed Digital Rights Management (DRM) protections on eBooks to make sure libraries can’t do it on eBooks either.

        This article points up the serious flaw in public library distribution of eBooks–there aren’t any! Or at least not nearly enough titles and availability of those titles to satisfy a voracious eReading public. And if an Amazon or other commercial entity can manage to step in and fill that void, libraries are in trouble. See:

        The End of Libraries

        • Thank you Dale!

          Which is why I wonder why there are only 1 digital versions available for each book. 100 books is not a whole lot to serve 28 library districts! While I love that Amazon is attempting to fill the void, I hate that the public libraries are getting the short end of the stick. Publishers need to educate themselves and help make this work for everyone instead of fighting the tide.

  • Thank you for explaining how it works. Kindle does not work with Canadian libraries and friends and I were wondering why.

    I received a Kobo for Christmas and looked into borrowing books here. First off, we download Adobe Digital Editions from the Adobe site. That gives us a sort of desktop program. Borrowing an book is exactly the same process as what you describe but there’s no link at the end to go to Amazon. It gets downloaded directly to ADE. From there you just drag and drop to your eReader.

    Our borrowing periods where I am, Southern Ontario, are either 7 or 14 days but a friend who lives about 300 miles away also has the option of 21 days so it may depend on the library itself.

    No late fees here. After the period is up, the book just becomes inaccessible to you.

  • Our library system (through Overdrive) does not charge late fees on e-books. It simply expires. Since waiting lists are so long, I “return” the e-book as soon as I’m finished with it rather than keeping it the full two weeks until it expires so the next person on the list can start reading it. It is my understanding that the reason we have so few e-books to check out and such long waiting lists has to do with publishers’ “costs.”

  • I couldn’t possibly agree more with the author’s blog on this topic. EVERY point was made with which I too, had a similar distaste for…..

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