Local libraries an overlooked option for free ebooks

So you got an e-reader over the holidays, but it’s still just a pretty paperweight since you haven’t downloaded any content on it yet.

So you got an e-reader over the holidays, but it’s still just a pretty paperweight since you haven’t downloaded any content on it yet.

Amazon and Sony have their own ebook stores, Kobobooks.com has a good selection of Canadian titles, and there are websites like Project Gutenberg that host tens of thousands of free-to-download public domain classics from the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Miguel de Cervantes.

But there’s another option that most readers might not consider: their local library.

“Unfortunately the message that people get when they buy those ebook readers is about where to buy ebooks, but a lot of them don’t realize there’s a lot of free ebooks available,” said Anne O’Shea, assistant manager for electronic resources with the Vancouver Public Library.

With very little fanfare, libraries across the country have been offering access to ebooks for years, well before the Amazon Kindle and Sony’s Readers became hot, trendy tech gadgets.

There are ebooks and electronic audiobooks available for download to compatible e-readers, computers, MP3 players and smartphones, as well as music and movies.

And best of all, they’re automatically returned so there’s no late fees.

Unfortunately for Kindle owners, Amazon has yet to make its product compatible with the file formats used by libraries.

The ebook collections are still limited but there’s no doubt they will grow considerably in the years ahead, librarians say.

“We see it at this stage as a small but growing segment of our (collection),” said Jane Pyper, chief librarian for the Toronto Public Library, which is considered the largest public library network in Canada and the busiest in North America.

Toronto residents can access about 8,000 ebooks through the library’s website and were on track to have checked out 150,000 e-titles by the end of 2009, she said. That compares to about 30 million borrows of regular books.

In terms of buying new content for the library system, Pyper noted that for this year’s most hyped book, Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol,” 800 print copies were purchased versus just 15 ebook copies and 15 electronic audiobook copies. As of this week, more than 1,500 library users are on the waiting list for the print version, while there were almost 50 holds on the ebook and e-audiobook versions.

There’s a huge convenience factor associated with online borrowing, for both library patrons and staff, said Peter Schoenberg, manager of electronic services for the Edmonton Public Library.

“When we order an ebook, we don’t get it in a box, we don’t unpack it, we don’t label it, we don’t shelve it, we don’t physically check it out, we don’t return it or reshelve it, and it doesn’t get stolen or damaged — so there’s a whole bunch of stuff that made us very interested in considering ebooks,” he said.

Online collections are also very practical for library patrons who have to trek a long way to their local branch, or have mobility issues, he said. The website is also handy during our Canadian winters, when readers would rather stay inside with a book by the fireplace than venture outside.

“Certainly in Edmonton we had one of the coldest weeks I can remember in a long time (recently) and given a choice of braving a high of -30C or making a few clicks on your PC to get to a book — that’s a pretty clear choice,” he said.

“The other thing that’s important is the content is available 24-7, so if it’s 10 p.m. when you finish a book, or the one you borrowed from us you didn’t enjoy … the website’s still open.”

The biggest challenge libraries currently face is trying to provide content that is viewable by as many devices as possible.

The digital rights management attached to ebooks work with some devices but not others, and the borrowing and downloading process isn’t completely painless, Pyper admits.

Librarians say it’s particularly frustrating that the Kindle — which so many readers are eager to buy — won’t read library ebooks.

O’Shea said librarians are reluctant to buy content from Amazon that can only be viewed on Kindles. The various players in the ebook industry need to work together to solve the format issue because if they don’t, users will simply turn to the easiest solution, which may be online piracy, she said.

“What I’d really like to see from all of those vendors is for them to do their digital rights management in a way that isn’t such a barrier for patrons, because patrons know they can download some of this stuff for free online illegally and if you put too much of a barrier in place they’re not going to want to do it through the library.”

Schoenberg said he doesn’t make any product recommendations when readers ask about the best e-reader but does let them know about the Kindle’s limitations.

“I think it’s important people are aware of that,” he said.

“We’d love to be able to provide content for the Kindle, one of our goals and one of the phrases we often use is we want to be in the spaces our customers are in, but the Kindle is so far a challenge to do that.

“I think the consumer needs to say to Amazon, I like your Kindle but I’d like to be able to put library books on it.”

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