PORTLAND — Recognizing a nearly 80 percent increase in eReader sales in 2010, public libraries are working to accommodate the new technology.
The Portland Public Library is among a growing number of public libraries allowing patrons to download books for free through a state service.
Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick has taken it a step further, allowing patrons to sign out eReaders preloaded with content. And Falmouth Memorial Library may soon follow Brunswick’s lead.
“There’s a lot of interest in it,” said Elisabeth Doucett, director of Curtis Memorial Library, noting that eReaders are great for the visually impaired because text sizes displayed can be increased and adjusted. “It’s like it hit a take-off point.”
While some libraries are eagerly working to incorporate eReaders and eBooks into their collections, some directors, including South Portland Public Library Director Kevin Davis, are cautiously wading into the digital stream, rather than diving in head-first.
“I am reluctant to spend public monies in support of the service,” Davis said, noting there are compatibility issues between some devices.
According to Gartner, a Connecticut-based digital research firm, sales of eReaders are expected to reach 6.6 million in 2010. That’s a nearly 80 percent increase over 2009 sales, which topped out at 3.6 million units.
Meanwhile, the firm predicts sales in 2011 will increase another 68 percent, surpassing 11 million.
The market is being driven by three vendors: Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony. But the firm indicates that dedicated eReaders face the threat of “cannibalization by media tablets,” such as the Apple iPad.
By February, about 170 public libraries throughout the state will be accommodating eReaders by investing in a statewide download service, Maine InfoNet Download Library, according to its executive director, James J. Sanbourn.
Users whose libraries participate in the program can access the state’s 1,800-plus eBook collection for free through their public library’s website. Patrons use their local library card number to download up to three books at a time and have up to two weeks to read the books.
When the loan period expires, the eBook becomes inaccessible.
The state charges local libraries an annual fee, ranging from $100 to $1,500, based on population. The database also includes nearly 2,000 audio books.
Sanbourn said the database was established by using $20,000 in grants plus $18,000 in voluntary, one-time payments from libraries that subscribe to the audio book service.
While many libraries donated around $200, larger communities, like Portland and Bangor, contributed $2,000 and $1,000, respectively, Sanbourn said.
The money is being used to build the collection, as well as to offset a $12,000 maintenance fee from the eBook vendor, OverDrive.
“This is an example of libraries coming together to provide a service that they couldn’t have individually,” Sanbourn said.
Sanbourn said demand for eBooks has taken off since the service became available in late October.
Just under 650 eBooks were checked out over a two-week period that month. More than 1,900 eBooks were downloaded in November and nearly 2,900 were downloaded in December 2010.
Only three days into the New Year, Sanbourn said, 314 eBooks had been downloaded.
“That’s a pretty nice curve,” he said of the growing circulation. “I don’t know how much of that is the word getting out or people getting (eReaders) for Christmas.”
Sanbourn said the state’s collection is not compatible with the industry-leading Amazon Kindle, because the company limits Kindle users to obtaining books through Amazon.com.
But the service is compatible with iPhone and Android smart phones, he said, and can be used on the iPad after content is downloaded to a computer and synced via iTunes.
Sanbourn said that more than half of the collection is currently signed out. The library is trying to buy more digital rights to more popular books, which have five or more people waiting for them, he said.
Digital rights are comparable to regular books, Sanbourn said, ranging from $20 for popular books to $7 for older titles.
“My biggest concern is we won’t be able to keep up with demand,” he said.
Portland Public Library Executive Director Steve Podgajny said a pre-Christmas workshop about eReaders and eBooks drew about 55 people on relatively short notice.
Although South Portland does not directly offer the eBook services, its patrons, as well as those in Cumberland and York counties, can get a PPL card to access the service.
About 215 eBook downloads were completed by PPL patrons in November, according to Lending and Technical Services Director Sarah Campbell.
Davis, South Portland’s library director, said he would like to see some of the technical hurdles removed before he decides to directly invest into the state system.
“I have held off on investing our own local funds into it out of concern over the limited access it provides to users,” he said. “Basically, until there is a digital offering that is accessible by a wide portion of our user base – without putting the burden of acquiring new hardware on our users – I am reluctant to spend public monies in support of the service.”
Some libraries, like Falmouth and Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library, are removing the technical hurdles for users by loaning eReaders preloaded with content.
According to the Curtis Memorial Library website, library users can sign out a Barnes & Noble Nook or a Sony Touch Reader. The library has scheduled a Jan. 18 forum at 6:30 p.m. in the Seminar Room to discuss the program.
Reference Librarian Paul Dostie said the Curtis Memorial Library has a Kindle, iPad and three Nooks, which are preloaded with the books on The New York Times Best Seller list.
The devices can be borrowed by library users who are in good standing. They must provide a valid driver’s license and agree to pay replacement costs if something happens to the units, Dostie said.
He said 65 eBooks were downloaded by patrons in November, and 139 were downloaded in December.
Falmouth Memorial Library Director Lynda Sudlow said her library has four Sony Touch eReaders, which are being used to train staff.
The library recently received a $5,000 grant from the Margaret E. Burnham Foundation – only one of two in the state – to expand its eReader inventory, including buying cases and power adapters, Sudlow said.
The goal is to begin lending eReaders preloaded with content, she said, though the details still need to be worked out.
“Obviously loaning out pieces of equipment that are worth between $150 to $200 is different from loaning out a book,” she said.
Sanbourn said about 43 eBooks were downloaded in November.
An eBook revolution?
While sales of eReaders are exploding, library directors are still hesitant to declare that a revolution is afoot.
“It’s really difficult to predict what is going to happen,” Sudlow said.
Davis said he believes that buying physical books still remains the wisest investment for South Portland, due to uncertainty in the market and service providers.
“You can easily find yourself spending thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars over time on content and have the provider go belly up, leaving the library with absolutely nothing to show for the investment,” Davis said. “(But) a publisher can’t come to us and remove a book they published last year from circulation. Once we buy it, it is ours to lend indefinitely.”
Podgajny said he expects public libraries to absorb the new technology in order to survive, much like they did with computers, DVDs and CDs.
About 620,000 people visited the Portland Public Library before it was renovated, Podganjy said, and library visits are currently on a record-setting pace.
“This speaks to the complexity of the public library and its relationship to its community which extends well beyond lending materials,” he said.
Podgajny, however, said he doesn’t believe that eReaders and eBooks will ever entirely replace actual, physical books, each of which has its own look, feel and smell.
“There is something special and clearly different about a printed book; it is undeniable,” he said. “It is a different kind of sensory experience … it is portable, needs no power source and is tremendously tolerant of run of the mill environmental conditions.”
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Circulation Manager Jeannie Madden on Tuesday morning shows off Sony eReaders on display at Falmouth Memorial Library. The library is considering making the devices, pre-loaded with content, available to its patrons.