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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