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The next phase of libraries rolls into town

(Page 2 of 2)

“I learned a lot today,” says Angel Chen, as her son watched Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” in the bookmobile lounge. A Boston resident who visits the city’s public library twice a month with her two young children, Ms. Chen says she’ll start downloading library books and movies at home. “Now I know how to do some of this,” she says.

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The process is simple: Patrons enter a participating library’s digital lending site through its home page and use the bar code on their library card to check out audiobooks, e-books, videos, and music.

Once selected, an item will be placed in a patron’s cart – much as with online shopping websites. Most books in the digital collections only have a limited number of copies that may be checked out at a time – just as at regular libraries. But, if a book or other material is unavailable, patrons can sign up on a wait list.

Special software can be downloaded onto home computers and then used to transfer the borrowed files to an MP3 player or other device.

There are no late fees – items check back in (i.e. delete themselves) within one to three weeks.

OverDrive founder Steve Potash says he thought the main demographic would be “business geeks and road warriors” from Gen-Y – those 18-30 years old, used to surfing the Web, and who, according to Pew, report going to the library more often than any other age group.

But women in their 40s have been the top users, and the No. 1 genre of downloaded media is harlequin romance, Mr. Potash says. Pop-fiction, mystery, science fiction, self-help, and books that teach a foreign language round out the most-borrowed list.

Collections specialists in each participating library compile library-specific catalogs from OverDrive’s 150,000 titles. The process requires a balancing of resources, says Laura Straub, collection development manager for the Boston Public Library. An audiobook from OverDrive is typically more expensive for the library than a print book, Ms. Straub says, because, like a retail audiobook, recording costs are factored into the price. An e-book, however, can be less expensive to purchase than a print book.

Another financial benefit is that digital items are never lost or damaged.

“When we first looked at the idea of downloadable digital we thought, ‘It’s not cheap.’ But from a circulation standpoint it’s 24-hour access and full content – a no-brainer for us,” says Kim Edson, head of readers’ services for the Rochester (Minn.) Public Library. “But we were also concerned. Should we spend a lot of money on something only a select few can use?”

In 2006, a year after partnering with OverDrive, the Rochester library installed a download station where patrons could plug in their hand-held devices on site.

Through OverDrive’s Gear2Go program, which sells inexpensive MP3 devices to libraries at cost, Ms. Edson purchased 10 players at $30 apiece. Patrons supply their own headphones, or can purchase them for $2 at the library.

“Homeless people use it,” Edson says. “The women in the shelter were thrilled. This is exactly the audience we wanted.”