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Public libraries journey into unmapped e-book territory

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2011

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A surge in demand for electronic books is pushing public libraries to rethink their traditional collections of bound volumes, and wrestle with new privacy concerns and the disparate lending policies set by publishers.

Since the beginning of the year, several area librarians said, booming interest in e-readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, has led to dramatic jumps in the number of e-books being checked out.

E-book downloads at the Public Library of Brookline have jumped from 119 in September 2010 to 537 last month, said its director, Chuck Flaherty.

“That’s like 400 percent higher and what it’s demonstrating is the e-readers, people have bought them, they’ve been given them as gifts, and now they don’t want to pay to add content, so they are coming to us,’’ he said.

While e-book borrowing remains a fraction of total circulation numbers, some area libraries are doubling and even tripling the portion of their budgets used to buy e-books in order to keep up with demand.

The Minuteman Library Network, which serves 42 libraries in communities west of Boston, has doubled its e-book budget to $200,000 in the past year, said Kate Tranquada, director of the Waltham Public Library, which has tripled its local budget for downloadable books to $10,000 this year.

The spending by libraries is taking place as the weak economy and other pressures have driven bookstores, both national chains and local independents, to close in communities such as Belmont, Brookline, and Lexington in recent years.

But local librarians say their institutions have been evolving for the last two decades, and now host community events such as art shows and lectures while also trying to meet growing demand for study space and wireless Internet access.

“As a place, it’s got a lot more purposes than just what the bookstores do,’’ said Tranquada.

Overall circulation numbers remain strong, librarians report.

At Lexington’s Cary Memorial Library, patrons checked out 762,718 items in the 2009 fiscal year, and two years later the number was up to 834,112, said director Koren Stembridge.

Lexington’s e-book circulation has shown a sharp increase during the same period. In 2009, a total of 1,084 audio and text e-books were downloaded through the library, Stembridge said. For the year ending June 30, the number had more than doubled and is on pace to double again this fiscal year, according to library figures.

“It’s absolutely growing exponentially,’’ Stembridge said. “We’re investing this year two-and-a-half times what we did last year. We’re going to invest about $20,000 to $25,000 in e-books.’’

E-readers are also on the shopping list for some libraries. The Newton Free Library purchased six Kindles this year that patrons can check out, said director Nancy Perlow. The library has loaded 100 e-books, including fiction, nonfiction and children’s books, on each device.

“They’ve been popular,’’ she said.

But as librarians scramble to build e-book collections from scratch, they are also wrestling with privacy issues and with inconsistent approaches taken by publishers that are dictating how library patrons can check out their books.

Amazon only began offering Kindle owners the ability to check out e-books through public libraries this spring, and Flaherty said that since the Minuteman Library Network began offering e-books to Kindle users last month, his library has seen an even greater surge in e-book circulation.

But libraries contract out e-book lending services to private companies, and local officials are concerned about maintaining the privacy of their e-book borrowers, said Flaherty, Brookline’s library director.

Brookline protects the privacy of its patrons regarding the information and resources that they use, and library staff member Colin Wilkins said that OverDrive, the company that facilitates the Minuteman Library Network’s e-book lending, has taken the same stance on privacy and confidentiality.

But, Wilkins said, third parties that partner with Overdrive, such as Amazon, may not adhere to the same strict privacy policies, and may use information about the materials used by patrons for marketing purposes. The library is notifying patrons of its privacy concerns.

Amazon spokeswoman Kinley Campbell said her company takes the issue of privacy very seriously, and, as with all customer information, details about who checks out public library books for the Kindle, and what they are reading, is subject to Amazon.com’s privacy policy. According to the policy, which can be found at www.amazon.com/privacy-policy, the website’s users must agree to the policy to access any materials, and Amazon automatically collects and analyzes information such as internet protocol addresses, login and e-mail addresses, and the users’ purchase history, which the company sometimes aggregates with similar information from other customers to create lists recommending other books or products.

Alex Green, owner of Back Pages Books in Waltham, said the privacy issues are part of the reason why it might be a good idea for communities to slow down and think through the process of obtaining e-books for public libraries, instead of demanding that collections be built quickly.

“I think it’s important for communities to value the experience of librarians and allow them the space to determine the best way to go through this,’’ Green said.

Flaherty said the publishing industry also hasn’t totally come to grips with how to manage the way it shares content with public libraries.

With certain e-books, a library can buy a copy but is only allowed to lend it to one user at a time. But other titles can be checked out by multiple people at once, he said.

Communities that have access to e-book titles held by the Minuteman Library Network can also buy additional copies of popular e-books for their own libraries to reduce wait times for local users.

“The only way this will really work is if people don’t have to wait a terribly long time to get the book they want, because obviously in the universe of downloadables, waiting is not really an expected part of the experience,’’ said Stembridge, head of Lexington’s library.

Other publishing policies are challenging library budgets with repeat purchases. Brookline official Flaherty said that when HarperCollins Publishers announced this year that it would cap the number of times an e-book title could be circulated at 26 before libraries have to pay for the books again, it caused an “uproar’’ in the library community.

“We have books that have circulated 60 times,’’ Flaherty said. “We have books that have circulated 100 times.’’ However, for the publishers, he said, “it’s a new trend. They are in the business to make money. There’s some concern that libraries might hurt their business.’’

HarperCollins said in an open letter in March that the company had “serious concerns’’ that its previous policy of selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity would place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.

“We are looking to balance the mission and needs of libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers, so that the library channel can thrive alongside the growing e-book retail channel,’’ the company said.

Once a HarperCollins e-book is checked out 26 times through a library, the library can repurchase the book for a lower price, the company said. HarperCollins spokeswoman Erin Crum said the policy has remained unchanged since March.

The variety of e-reader brands also complicates the check-out process for e-books, and librarians say they have been deluged with questions from patrons.

Some people have Kindles, some have the Nook, and still others have the Sony Reader or use Apple’s iPad, and librarians have to familiarize themselves with the download procedures for each of the devices.

Brookline has begun offering one-on-one tutorials to teach people how to check out an e-book, and Wilkins said he’s had sessions with readers from 12 to 70 years old.

“It’s amazing actually because it runs the gamut,’’ Wilkins said.

Lexington’s Cary Memorial is preparing to start offering e-reader tutorials, Stembridge said, and noted that as the technology comes of age, it will be fun to watch which methods or formats patrons decide they prefer.

“I think what will be interesting is to see that at some point, as things become more electronic, there is going to be a tipping point and we’re going to be buying potentially fewer physical items,’’ Stembridge said. “That will be interesting to see how, as we redeploy space, what are the things we can add into what we do here at the library.’’

But, she said, “We’re definitely not there yet.’’

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.