The announcement is so subtle, a casual visitor to the Johnson County Library’s website might easily miss it. Nestled amid some artwork on homework help and Caldecott Medal winners, a doctored Edward Penfield poster says simply: EBooks. In the past, a click might have led to an explanation of how the library someday hopes to get eBooks for its patrons. But no more. As of late December, and after being all but absent for two years, eBooks have finally returned to the library, available at jocolibrary.org, where you can click on the poster (shown at right).
But if you want to check one out, be quick. After only three weeks of availability, one-third of the approximately 3,500 titles have been checked out, says Adam Wathen, who oversees the library’s book collection. Patrons, who’ve watched as other metro libraries have offered eBooks, are rejoicing.
“We’ve been getting regular requests from patrons for eBooks,” Wathen said. “We are glad to be able to deliver that now.”
Five or six years ago, the Johnson County Library used OverDrive, which was the only game in town at the time, Wathen said. But in 2011, the Kansas librarian let the contract lapse because of huge increases in administration fees.
After that, the county library did a nine-month test of some 3M software, he said. “We decided those services were not up to the standards we wanted for our patrons.”
The library eventually settled on Baker & Taylor, a book distributor since 1828.
Electronic readers like the Kindle, Nook and the iPad have thrown libraries into strange new territory as publishers, authors and distributors struggle with a business model that makes sense. As a result, the library’s system has a few quirks.
Since the eBook selection is still limited — there are 14,000 copies of those 3,500 titles — patrons are restricted to no more than three checked out at a time. The checkout period is also shortened to 14 days, which is a week shorter than checkout times for most paper books.
“We’re trying to meet great demand with limited resources,” Wathen said.
Those restrictions have the potential to create some problems, Wathen said. For one thing, there is no way to return an eBook early. So if a patron has three eBooks checked out and another hold comes in, it may be impossible to pick it up within three days (it’s seven days for traditional books).
Readers may ask for a shorter lending time at checkout. But if they finish earlier than expected, or just get tired of the book, it still stays on their devices until time is up. That’s a problem Wathen hopes to have fixed in the coming months.
Also, not every eReader will be able to download the library’s collection. Android and iOS/Apple tablets and smart phones can get them, as well as the Kindle Fire, which is a reader that doubles as a tablet. But for older-generation or traditional eReaders — the kind with the muted gray screens — it’s a trickier question. Library officials say devices that support EPUB files will work. Most Nook, Sony and Kobo readers work well, they said.
But if you have a traditional Kindle reader, you’re out of luck.
That’s because the Kindle readers, which use a program called E Ink, are a closed system created by Amazon for use in buying Amazon’s books, Wathen said. There’s no way to download the “Blio” app necessary to get the library’s books.
Those older Kindles would have worked with the OverDrive lending system, he said. But OverDrive was dropped in 2011 by the Kansas state library system because of cost increases.
The Kansas City Public Library has offered eBooks through OverDrive since the fall of 2008, spokesman Steve Woolfolk said. Over the years, the library has considered other distributors, but stayed with OverDrive in part because the books can be downloaded onto the E Ink Kindles. The library’s research shows many Kansas City readers use those Kindles, he said.
When Kansas City launched the eBook program, Kansas City had about 3,000 titles, but now that’s grown to 9,500, Woolfolk said.
Mid Continent Public Library, headquartered in Independence and serving Jackson, Clay and Platte counties, has had eBooks since December 2011, and its collection has steadily grown, said a library spokeswoman.
It’s been a bumpy ride for libraries all over the country as they struggle to find a way to lend electronically in a way that satisfies a publishing industry wary of losing profits. Some publishers steer clear of eBooks, while others may not offer their latest or biggest sellers. Only 25 to 30 percent of the current New York Times bestseller list is available on eBook, Wathen said.
Libraries have to replace paper books as they wear out. But since eBooks don’t wear out and are cheaper to copy, the question has always been how much to charge them. A digital copy of Fifty Shades of Gray, for example, costs $9.99 from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but $47.85 through library eBook distributors.
Libraries don’t “own” an eBook in the same way that they own hard copy books, Wathen said. The arrangement is more like a subscription to a distributor who provides the content. If a library changes distributors, the eBooks in the collection could go, too.
The county library has spent $300,000 in the last three months getting eBooks off the ground and will spend about the same amount over the coming year as it gets the system going, Wathen said.
There wasn’t much difference between distributors on price, he said. “They were all in the same ballpark. Pricing is dictated by the publishers.” That said, 3M was about 3 percent higher and had a system that would have been more of a headache for the library to operate.
The Baker & Taylor system also has some interactive formatting that will allow people with impaired vision to change format or color options on some books, he said.
“This is the most efficient and cost-effective way to distribute these books. We are constantly concerned about being good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Wathen said.