National Library Week: The shifting landscape of the digital library

Given the high prices of e-books, the ability to borrow digital materials is a lifesaver, particularly for those on a budget. There are many sites which offer free editions of public domain books, but other than a paid subscription service, for newer books, public libraries are the easiest way to read without paying the high prices publishers are demanding for newer ebooks.

Since library borrows of ebooks are up, it would seem like ebook readers agree. In 2016 alone, OverDrive, one of the leading distributors of digital materials to libraries, announced a total of  196 million borrows worldwide. According to OverDrive, there were 49 libraries surpassed over 1 million borrows each. However since there are a number of digital distributors to libraries, that also means that’s there is not one central source (that I could find, anyway) that has recent numbers for total digital borrows from libraries.

While the ability to borrow ebooks, audiobooks, music, movies and more from the library without leaving your house is definitely convenient, one of the unfortunate realities is that, for a number of reasons, all library experiences are not identical.Depending on your library, their vendors, your preferred device and format choices (Mobi or ePub, audiobook or ebook), the digital library experience can vary considerably.

There are number of library distributors who distribute digital materials to libraries. OverDrive is probably one of the biggest and best known to many patrons, but there are others like 3M cloud and Axis 360. Some, like Hoopla, offer a mixed variety of digital content.There are also a number of vendors that specialize in specific types of content (such as One Click digital for audiobooks, Freegal for music, Zinio and Flipster  for magazines).

Different libraries may use different vendors and/or combination of vendors. That means each library may offer a unique combination of materials and services.

Cost is usually a huge factor in which services libraries offer. For ebooks, publishers charge libraries more than they do individuals to license materials. The pricing structure also varies from service to service. Services like OverDrive use the One Copy/One User lending model. The library can only loan out a finite number of ebooks at one time, depending on how many licenses they have purchased for a particular title.

It is becoming increasingly common to hear stories about libraries changing distributors in order to try to keep cost down. Just this week, the Auburn, Alabama Public Library announced that it is moving from Overdrive to 3M Cloud. Because it is affiliated with book publishers, 3M Cloud offers its services at lower price than OverDrive. The problem is that 3M Cloud content does not work with e-ink Kindles, leaving Kindle readers out in the cold unless they read on their Fire tablet.

Unlike OverDrive, Hoopla allows for simultaneous usage, meaning patrons do not have to wait for a popular title. Because of cost, however, most libraries have a limit on how many Hoopla items can be checked out in a given month. As this article on the CLEVNET library consortium in Ohio  shows, some libraries have had to reduce the number of items available to patrons because of the costs. Like 3M Clud, Hoopla only works on phones and tablets, not on e-ink devices like the Kindle.

The bottom line is, the amount of money available to your library system will determine what your library can offer on the digital front. The best resource for checking what your local library offers is their website. Most libraries list their digital services on their website.

While more ebooks than ever are being offered by local libraries, I still get email from people frustrated that their library does not have a large enough selection of ebooks or titles in a particular genre. While services like the Digital Public Library of America, The Internet Archive and the Open Library have come a long way towards making material available, we are still a long way away from a true national digital public library that can be accessed by everyone.

If you happen to live in a district that either has a small ebook selection or not enough titles in the genres you prefer to read, you may have some options. You may want to check with your library to see if they have reciprocal privileges with other libraries in the county or the state where you live. There are some libraries that offer non-resident cards online or via email for a fee. (There is a list here on Mobileread.com.) The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Public Library are both popular with avid ebook readers and the fee for each is a modest $50.

I personally have cards at both The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Public Library. My local library has very limited options for digital materials. The city library has reciprocal privileges with our county library, but those privileges don’t include access to the county’s fantastic selection of digital materials and even paid out-of-area cards there do not include digital lending . My only choice for a wider selection is to pay for a card somewhere else.

So how about you? What’s your experience been borrowing ebooks from your library?

As we continue #NationalLibraryWeek discussions, tomorrow, we’ll discuss tools for library reading strategies. 🙂