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Ebook library borrowing hits record pace

Holiday sales of new tablets and e-readers have catapulted ebook borrowing at many of the nation’s libraries, raising the question of how libraries can keep up with demand—especially when some publishers still balk at ebook lending.

The demand for ebooks at some major public libraries more than doubled so far in December and January compared to a year ago, causing frustrations for ebook users and librarians alike.

“Demand for ebook borrowing has definitely gone up…dramatically recently,” said Laura Irmscher, collection development manager for the Boston Public Library, the nation’s oldest with a central library and 26 branches. She said ebook borrowing demand at the Boston libraries more than tripled in December, compared to December 2010. For the first half of January, more than 700 people a day tried to borrow an ebook, or added their name to a long waiting list for some of the more popular titles.

At the New York Public Library, 2907 ebooks and materials were checked out on Dec. 26, 2011, nearly double the 1523 checked out on the same date in 2010, said Miriam Tuliao, assistant director of collections strategy for the library. In all, the New York Public Library has 22,000 unique ebook titles.

Libraries see increased demand

For the past three years, as ebook readers have gained popularity, librarians have noticed a big uptick in ebook borrowing each January. But this month has been especially busy. Most librarians and analysts attribute the growth to the sales of new tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire or the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, and continued strong sales of the iPad 2, as well as black-and-white e-readers selling for well below $200.

One analyst at Barclays said 5.5 million Kindle Fire tablets were sold in the fourth quarter, higher than earlier estimates by analysts that between three million and five million would be sold during that period.

While many ebook titles are available for borrowing at public libraries, there is usually a long virtual line for the most popular books.

At libraries surveyed by Computerworld in New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles, e-borrowers of John Grisham’s The Litigators had to join a long waiting list. In Boston, 150 people were on a list for one of the 15 available copies of the Grisham ebook. Long waiting lists apply for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well.

Some in the ebook reading public have been disappointed by the shortage of the popular books in libraries, complaining that the e-reader and tablet industry is biased toward getting the public to buy an actual book rather than borrow it. A blogger at Actuarial Opinions complained that “practically all of the ebooks are checked out, and the waiting list is usually 20+” for the New York Public Library.

Publishers slow to adapt

Making matters worse, some publishers still won’t provide borrowing licenses to libraries for new ebook titles. They include Scribner, which released Stephen King’s time travel novel 11/22/63 as well as Putnam, which released Tom Clancy’s Locked On or Simon and Schuster, publisher of the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs.

HarperCollins has also restricted libraries to 26 borrowings of a single book title license, reasoning that a library would have to replace a single printed book title after 26 borrowings, due to wear and tear. Many libraries say they pay $12 to $15 for a single license, although others say the licenses can mirror the retail cost of a printed book, often $25 or more for a new popular work.

The publishers who prevent ebook borrowing say they are mainly concerned about piracy of the copyrighted content. Their view is bolstered by some experts who note that music and movies are also widely pirated. HarperCollins said in an emailed comment that its 26 borrowings policy for libraries was “initiated to find the best model for all parties, while balancing the challenges and opportunities that the growth of ebooks represents.”

A few librarians are skeptical of publishers’ claims about piracy, and hope to work with publishers to find ways pay affordable rates for ebook licenses while providing the popular items demanded by the public.

“We know publishers are facing a lot of challenges and seeking the right business model, but [libraries] are a little frustrated and anxious to work with publishers to find a good model that works,” said Boston’s Irmscher.

The point of having ebooks to borrow from a range of publishers is that library users can feel free to explore new genres and authors they “wouldn’t want to spend money on,” she added. “People want to use the library, even with ebooks, as a form of discovery. If we don’t have it, then they aren’t exposed to it.”

Irmscher said she is dubious that piracy is the main motivation for publishers who restrict ebook borrowing. “I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of piracy being a problem, since those who do offer [ebook borrowing] don’t have that problem,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the real concern; it’s money.”

Library budgets tight

More than the willingness of publishers to allow ebook borrowing, libraries face dwindling budgets hit even harder in recent years by cash-strapped local governments.

The American Library Association (ALA) lobbies Congress for federal funds that go to libraries, and also has set up an internal working group to meet with publishers about their borrowing policies, said Alan Inouye, an ALA representative based in Washington.

Inouye said ALA’s stance with publishers is one of negotiation instead of legislation or litigation. “We’re customers of publishers, and publishers are losing money by not allowing ebook borrowing,” he said. “It’s a large ecosystem, and we want to stimulate ebook use.”

Most libraries still spend only a fraction of their annual budget for new titles on ebooks. At the Chicago Public Library, there are currently 6443 ebook titles for borrowing, comprising about 3 percent of the total collection, said spokesman Ruth Lednicer.

In Boston, about 3 percent of the annual budget for procurements in recent years has gone for ebooks, Irmscher said.

Even though ebooks are expected to continue to mushroom in popularity, Irmscher said the biggest challenge is to procure enough of the most popular ebooks to keep up with demand.

Ebook borrowing in Chicago has spiked enough recently that the library there had to clamp down on ebook borrowing by suburbanites, provoking some controversy. The Chicago Public Library’s managers realized that suburban libraries did not have reciprocal ebook borrowing and Chicago could not afford to keep up with the area-wide demand, Lednicer said.

“Ebooks are increasingly popular in every library system,” Lednicer said. “People loved it last fall when Amazon said libraries could be Kindle friendly. We often have to put ebook titles on hold. But there are limits to what we can do. We used to allow people in the suburbs to check out ebooks. But we just can’t afford to do that anymore.”

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