The next phase of libraries rolls into town

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

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.

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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.

“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.

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.”

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