October 2, 2011

E-books push Phoenix-area libraries into a new era




New e-reader technology is powering a revolution in library lending across the Valley.

Since online retail giant Amazon.com last week allowed thousands of books to be downloaded for free on its Kindle device by library users, waiting lists are already forming in cyberspace for many popular titles.

Amazon's agreement with publishers and digital-media vendors to let more than 11,000 of the nation's libraries lend many copyrighted and best-selling books electronically is another major step in technology's transformation of reading habits and library use.


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Borrowers have been able to check out a small but expanding inventory of music, videos and books since 2006, when Valley libraries created the Greater Phoenix Digital Library. The latest shift deeper into the digital age, which many library users have been clamoring for, was so popular that the regional digital-delivery system crashed as borrowers sought to check out some of the 28,858 titles made available under the Amazon agreement.

It was followed days later by Amazon's unveiling of its new Kindle Fire tablet - an iPad competitor - that is expected to increase demand even further for virtual borrowing of library books.

For Chandler Library manager Brenda Brown, it's one more step toward "dramatically changing the way libraries work and customers get books; they don't have to come to the library as often."

Already pooling resources and sharing cyberspace collections, Valley libraries will continue to expand their electronic offerings, transforming quiet libraries packed with paper-bound volumes into anytime, anywhere lenders of books, videos and music, she said.

Now borrowers can simply log on to their local library website from home, plug a Kindle into their computer and, with a few clicks, download up to 10 books onto their e-reader. The process is slightly more complex with other e-readers or computers that require program downloads or Kindle apps.

"I was one of the people who said I'll never read a book on a computer because you can't read in bed," Brown said. "And I used to carry three or four books when I travel. Now, I can put four or five books on an iPad and I do 80 percent of my reading via e-book."

Amazon launched its e-reader in 2007 as a vehicle for selling more electronic books on its website. Until now, Kindle owners had to pay for downloads of bestsellers and all copyrighted materials from Amazon.com, although libraries have made digital books from other sources available for free download to home computers, laptops, smartphones, iPods, iPads and Nooks for several years.

But as e-reader technology improved so that screens resembled real paper pages, and prices dropped, the popularity of Kindle along with Barnes and Noble's Nook, Apple's iPad and other devices has grown rapidly. They've persuaded millions of Americans to switch to reading books electronically and prompted demand for access to library collections.


Dorothy Stewart, a Tempe librarian, said patrons have been asking about borrowing books on Kindle for months, especially after the device became one of the hottest Christmas gifts last year. "People would come in and ask, 'Why don't you let us download on Kindle?' But it was really Amazon setting the rules," she said.

Until now, Amazon, which sells books and digital media on its website, offered limited availability of free material, mostly out-of-copyright and pre-1923 books, said company spokeswoman Stephanie Mantello in Seattle.

In a move that may be tied to Wall Street analysts' view that Amazon is seeking to sell more digital content, the Internet retailer is giving library users access to a slice of its vast book inventory for free.

Amazon is not revealing details of the Kindle library agreement, although Valley library managers say they did not have to pay any more access fees to OverDrive, a Cleveland-based distributor of digital media that negotiates deals with publishers and suppliers.

In the Valley, the library agreement releases 28,858 Amazon titles for Kindle borrowing, but with multiple copies of some books, the total collection that can be checked out at any one time is 45,438. Including other digital sources, the Phoenix digital-library consortium has nearly 100,000 items for public borrowing.

The consortium of city and county libraries spends $491,208 annually to fund the digital library.

For cash-strapped cities that have had to reduce library hours, the availability of e-readers expands free services without incurring the overhead costs.

Librarians expect changes to keep coming as new technology continues to make advances, but already the changes are dramatic for how library books are borrowed and read:

- No trips to and from library buildings to select books, no waiting in checkout lines, no second trips to return them before due dates.

- No overdue books and late fees: They just disappear from the electronic device.

- No need to haul stacks of books to homes, airplanes, vacation spots or waiting rooms; several books can be downloaded into one 8.5-ounce device.

To get staff and patrons up to speed on the new technology, Chandler used grant funds to hire 20-year-old Timothy Bastek, a tech-savvy Chandler-Gilbert Community College student. He has been training library employees since last month and started helping patrons Thursday.

Bastek said Kindle library checkouts are much easier than those of other e-readers. But the process is not as direct as Amazon purchases and that can be confusing for new users, he said.

The library materials have to be downloaded onto a laptop or computer and then transferred to a Kindle, because library checkouts require opening both the Amazon and the Phoenix Digital Library websites simultaneously.

Rita Marko, spokeswoman for Phoenix Public Libraries, said she foresees a time when patrons will be able to download material by scanning website bar codes instead of entering library-card numbers and passwords. And it may not be long before libraries add e-readers to their lending inventory, she said.

Students, who are some of libraries' biggest users, are "digital natives who don't think of paper in the same way," Marko said. When it comes to remote downloads of library books, "I say to parents all the time: 'It's 8 p.m., and suddenly you realize there's a book report due tomorrow. This is the perfect solution,' " she said.

Avid Kindle user Chandra Kohler of Chandler, an early user of e-reading material, said that before she bought her Kindle about five years ago, she was downloading available library books onto her cellphone. But Kohler said she loves the size and portability of the Kindle, which she reads "on the airplane, on the beach, next to the pool. . . . And the selection in Phoenix libraries is amazing."

by Edythe Jensen The Arizona Republic Oct. 1, 2011 12:00 AM




E-books push Phoenix-area libraries into a new era

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