Tonawanda News

January 17, 2011

Curl up to a good ... file?

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

— Say good-bye to paper cuts, folks, cause the library is offering an electronic alternative to print books. OK, so it’s not exactly brand new, but e-books and audio books are available for free to download from the library. So fire up those e-readers and MP3 players you got for Christmas and do a little light reading entirely from the comfort of your own home.

The circulation of this e-content has exploded over the last several months, according to library officials at both the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and the Nioga Library System. The Erie County library’s circulation for e-books in December 2009 was 713, but by December 2010 it was up to 5,571.

Nioga Library System executive director Thomas Bindeman also says he started seeing a sharp increase in interest over the past summer months.

E-content is a relatively new addition to most libraries across the nation. Basically patrons can use a library’s website to check out and download audiobooks, e-books, MP3s and even videos from their home computers. There’s no need to even step foot in the library, except, of course, to obtain a library card which gives users access to the online content.

“If they didn’t have library cards this would certainly be a good reason to get one,” said Erie County librarian Pat Covley.

Other than a valid library card, there are just a few things users need to get started: Internet access, a computer or device (e-reader, smartphone or MP3 player) that meets specifications for the type of content you wish to acquire and free software to make it all work.

If it all sounds a little confusing, don’t worry, both libraries’ websites offer guides and tutorials to getting started. Covley concedes, though, it’s probably a little easier for the younger patrons to make the technological transition.

“I’m a parent and my kids are always looking for new formats, new ways to use information. They adapt seamlessly,” she said. “For older people like myself it takes more to get acclimated to the technology.”

For libraries, it’s all about adapting to changes in technology and consumer wants.

“I think the library offering all (this e-content), it’s just keeping us in line with what’s going on in the world. We’re in tune with the technology that certain age groups expect,” Erie County library public affairs manager Joy Testa Cinquino said. “For libraries to stay alive we need to stay in touch with those who don’t need to or want to walk into the library. It’s not your grandfather’s library anymore ... it’s the library of the 21st century and then some.”

Erie County libraries have offered web access to download audiobooks since the end of 2006 (offering about 4,000 titles) and e-books since 2009 (4,500 titles). The Nioga libraries have offered access to both for roughly a year with 404 audio titles and 1,224 e-books.

Both library systems are constantly adding to their selections as the demand arises. The Erie County libraries base their selections on bestsellers lists and their current electronic circulation.

Despite being electronic, these audio and e-books must both be “checked out” of the library and “returned” by the appointed due date. E-books are automatically deleted from your reading device when they are due, while patrons must actually delete audiobooks themselves.

Just like with print, the library can only lend one copy of these books out at a time because of licensing agreements. That said, they often must purchase multiple copies of the more popular titles to cut down on wait times.

There are still a few kinks in the e-book world, however, and Bindeman cites a lack of consistency in format. Amazon Kindle devices, for example, do not work with the file type that libraries use. Additionally, the software used for the iPhone and iPad is only optimized for the phone so while it still works on the tablet, the format is smaller. Searches online show that for most problems like this there are unofficial workarounds.

“As the application software becomes more available and once the stuff becomes easier, the sky’s the limit,” Bindeman said.

Testa Cinquino agrees that the future looks good for this new medium.

“Your library card is free and to download it’s free,” she said. “There are 37 physical branches but you can download a book 24 hours a day ... in the middle of the night when it’s convenient for you.”

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 116.