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The next phase of libraries rolls into town

By Sarah More McCann / September 5, 2008

In a time when practically any question can be answered through a Google search, brick-and-mortar libraries are evolving to remain relevant.

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Rather than cede ground to search engines, e-book readers, and download services, more than 7,500 US libraries are adopting their competitor’s tricks and offering digital means to access books, music, and movies – free of charge.

The embodiment of this effort parked outside Boston’s City Hall last week.

Inside the 75-foot-long, 18-wheel bookmobile are computer workstations, portable download devices, even a souped-up lounge replete with a “pleather” couch and a flat-screen TV – all designed to teach Bostonians how to use the newest in librarian tech: the digital lending library.

The bookmobile reveals the best-kept secret librarians don’t want to keep, say Boston Public Library staff and employees of OverDrive Inc., a Cleveland-based supplier of electronic and audio books, video, and music. Many of the nation’s libraries use OverDrive for 24-hour access to digital collections that patrons can “check out” on their own laptop, Blackberry, MP3 player, or other hand-held devices.

This newfound digital omnipresence means Web-enabled devices can complement – rather than supplant – local libraries, says Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association.

“We build intellectual capacity with little loans that, together, make a big difference,” he says.

Some 53 percent of Americans visited a library last year, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and patrons checked out 2.1 billion items in 2005, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

Librarians expect circulation numbers to rise as economic concerns make borrowing books more appealing. Yet the bookmobile’s conductors say even many who frequent libraries don’t know about their digital lending options.
“We’re touching only a small percentage of people we could be touching ... and want to make sure that people who don’t know about it get excited about it,” says Daniel Stasiewski, an OverDrive marketing associate.

Americans are increasingly prepared to tap into digital lending: Pew reports 73 percent of US adults have used the Internet, up from 46 percent in 2000, and that 55 percent have high-speed Internet access at home.