Ereaders are flying off the shelves and libraries are struggling to keep up. Can they continue to provide a free and local service? Barry Turnbull highlights some of the issues.
Libraries have been under threat for years, from the ever dwindling number of users to town hall cuts and now the digital revolution.
Many local authorities have decided to embrace the digital age by providing computer services as well as diversifying to meet community demands such as offering weight loss and stopping smoking classes.
Some have gone a step further and linked up with the world’s biggest affiliate programme for the online distribution of ebooks and audiobooks, Overdrive Media.
Ebook usage is forecast to overtake printed versions by 2020 which is a major challenge for public libraries.
But here’s the problem – Amazon is refusing to allow its Kindle device to be used for library downloads so immediately 86 per cent of potential readership has been wiped out.
This, of course, is because it sees no advantage in allowing free distribution via its branded reader.
The other problem is that publishing houses are not keen to see an ebook giveaway either. So much so, that one of the biggest, Penguin, has decided to block libraries from using its ebooks at all, quoting ‘security’ issues.
In 2011 Penguin’s ebook sales rocketed 106 per cent generating revenues of £126m.
Top authors included Jamie Oliver and Dawn French so if you are a fan and also have a Kindle – looks like you will have had to buy their books.
Overdrive lists devices that are compatible with its system, such as the Kobo touch at £79 or Sony reader costing £129.
Using the Overdrive system, borrowers can download the software for free and choose a book to read or listen to from their local library’s website. It then opens up in your Overdrive folder and can then be downloaded.
If most customers cannot access the system at a time when council budgets are being viciously cut back, one wonders how long a shelf life ebooks have in libraries.
It is a true dilemma as Ofcom figures show ebook usage has surged from 1 per cent to 10 per cent of adults with 55-64 year olds making up 14 per cent of the total.
But Overdrive say these issues are being addressed. The next generation of services is aimed at enabling all ebooks to be read on any web browser – whether on your computer or any other device.
But the Kindle question has not gone away. Overdrive’s director of marketing David Burleigh said: “The goal is to be able to read a book on any device with a modern browser but until we test it across the board we can’t say for certain.
“We have more than 800,000 titles in our catalogue and more than 100,000 checkouts. We are very excited to introduce the next generation suite of services primarily to improve the usability of the service.
“We continue to advocate for libraries the acquisition of the most liberal digital rights and increased compatibility with more devices.”
The Overdrive service also offers downloads of audiobooks in various different formats. This is a much more complex and challenging situation for the user as formats come in PC, Mac, WMA, iPad and MP3. In many cases you will have to burn to disc, then rip and convert to other formats.
Only a few audiobooks are offered in MP3 – easily the most accessible audio system for mobile devices.
Overdrive says it is also working to improve audiobook usability.
I roadtested the system adopted by Wirral libraries where a spokesman said they would look at buying more titles in MP3 format.
In my opinion the option of downloading a book rather than visiting the library will be attractive to lots of infirm and elderly users. The ereaders can be adjusted to increase the size of print and are portable.
If you are thinking of buying one or giving as a Christmas present the obvious market leader Kindle is no good if the user is reliant on free library services.
However other readers can do the same job of downloading books that can be purchased as well as taking advantage of free library books – my advice is do your research.