Strongholds of books are being infused with technology in Maine. Though e-books, or electronic books, aren’t usurping the rule of bound books in libraries, they now are an option for library patrons thanks to the Maine InfoNet Download Library.
The Download Library, which has offered an online collection of 1,800 audiobooks to Maine libraries since 2009, expanded Oct. 22 to include a downloadable e-book collection.
An e-book is a digital version of a print book that has been altered for on-screen reading.
“It’s personal preference and growing comfortable with different technologies,” said Maine InfoNet Executive Director James Sanborn in a phone interview last Wednesday. “The nice thing is, if you aren’t sure about it, now you can go to your library to try it out instead of spending money on e-books.”
Nearly 1,400 books of best-selling fiction and nonfiction are available in the e-book collection. Both e-books and audiobooks can be checked out online and downloaded by patrons of the 140-member libraries. A list of these libraries is available at download.maineinfonet.org/libraries.htm.
For people who work during their library’s open hours, e-books are available for loan online 24-7 and can be read on the computer screen or on a portable e-reader. For travelers, reading on an e-reader is an alternative to toting around a heavy collection of novels.
“It’s really nice. You just sit there, and it’s like reading paper. You press a button and you turn the page. And you can do it outside,” said Sanborn, who also mentioned that the E Ink technology is gentler on his eyes than a backlit computer screen.
In response to advances in technology, the Download Library launched March 2009 with audiobooks.
“Member libraries came together to fund something that individual libraries couldn’t necessarily fund on their own,” said Sanborn. “At the time, it was the goal to provide downloadable audiobooks for people who wanted to play them on an MP3 player.”
Over the past year, libraries repeatedly expressed their desire to provide e-books to the public. But the Download Library didn’t have the money to purchase a useful collection.
“I didn’t want [the website] to go live with only a few books,” Sanborn said.
Of the 140 member libraries, about half pledged $100-2,000 in additional funds earmarked to purchase an opening-day e-book collection amounting to $21,000. In addition, Maine InfoNet received $15,000 from the Davis Family Foundation.
The combined funds gave Maine InfoNet the money to purchase about 2,000 e-books, some of which have yet to be purchased.
Once checked out, an e-book can be read on a computer or transferred to e-readers such as Sony Reader, the Nook and the Kobo. The Kindle e-reader does not support this service.
“It works smoothly — really well — but there are steps,” Sanborn said. “It’s not as simple as reading a Web page.”
To view e-books and transfer them onto portable devices, people must download the free software Adobe Digital Editions, which is linked to the Download Library website.
“The system isn’t perfect. We try to offer the best support we can,” Sanborn said. “You have to be somewhat technologically savvy to use it.”
The good news is that librarians are learning about the technology so they can educate patrons.
The staff at Belfast Free Library has been learning about the e-book lending system since it was turned on late last month. Their goal is for all members of the staff to be able to help patrons use the system.
“When [Sanborn] suggested it, I immediately responded that it was a great idea and something our library should join in on and would love to see happen,” said Belfast Free Library Director Steve Norman. “E-books are the way of the future and libraries need to participate in e-books and be leaders in providing public access to e-books; so it’s an expansion of libraries’ traditional role.”
Though young people are usually the ones to snatch up new technology, e-readers are aimed to benefit people of all ages.
“It’s not just young people using the e-book readers,” Norman said. “Some of our older patrons are the most devoted users of the e-book readers because the fonts can be enlarged and are very easy to read as your near vision decreases.”
When the Download Library purchases an e-book, the number of copies is not unlimited. Digital Rights Management restricts the use of the file to whoever has the current license for it. Multiple copies of one e-book cost more.
“It treats digital books kind of like actual books in that we buy a copy, and that copy can only be used by one person at a time,” Sanborn said.
When an e-book is checked out, its license transfers to the person for 7 or 14 days, expires and goes back into circulation. Three items can be checked out at any given time, and e-books can be returned early.
The current e-book collection has multiple copies of some of the more popular books. For example, 10 copies of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson are available. Some books aren’t available in electronic format, such as the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.
Suggestions for titles to add to both the e-book and audiobook collections can be made at participating public libraries, or by e-mailing Maine InfoNet directly by following the “Help” or “Support” links on the Download Library website.
The annual fees paid by member libraries will allow the Download Library to increase its collection each year.
“I think that the technology has reached its tipping point,” said Belfast Free Library Executive Director Steve Norman. “Very soon, there will be a wide acceptance [of e-readers] in the public, and libraries need to be part of the equation.”
Member libraries pay an annual fee of $100-1,500, depending on the size of the population they serve. For information about becoming a member, visit www.maine.gov/infonet/digital/audio.shtml, which has a link to the 2011 membership application.