Released: June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 6: A closer look at e-book borrowing

By , , , and

Overview of responses in our online panel

Our online panel, unsurprisingly, was a relatively tech savvy group. The vast majority of library patron respondents owned a desktop or laptop computer, as well as a cell phone. Over half owned an e-reader, and about half owned a tablet computer—far higher than the 19% of the general population who own such devices.

A large number of the respondents discussed how technology is used in many parts of their lives. “I live on the internet. My devices keep me connected to friends and family. I also do a lot of traveling so the ability to take service with me (instead of relying on wireless connections) has been really key.”

Many of the more tech-savvy patrons said that they like gadgets, but usually wait for price to go down (and bugs to be worked out) before purchasing. “I like for things to be on the market a while before I buy. I do a lot of research and listen to other people’s experiences before I jump in. Once I’m in, I love it,” one e-book borrower told us. Another described herself as a “gadget lover on a budget. I usually get last year’s model.”

Many also mentioned that since they use computers all day for work, they enjoy using e-readers and tablets in the evenings as a change of pace. “I work in technology, and tend to not want it in my personal life,” one said.

Among the online respondents who did not see themselves as very technically inclined, many mentioned that while they are not usually an early adopter, they now love their e-reader. As one put it, “I am very techno-challenged!! But I love my Kindle, don’t know how I would live without it … I am a bit intimidated with technology but definitely see the need for it. I just need to take my time to learn new things.”

Another patron wrote, “I’m not a Luddite, but I tend to cringe when new technologies are introduced. Thank goodness for our rural library staff who assist me in downloading e-books. I feel like I am a bit behind the curve of technology, but am aware of what is ‘out there.’ I use my smartphone for everything from surfing the web to social networking to emailing, playing games, and research. The free apps I’ve been able to download help me identify prescriptions I have been prescribed, identify possible illnesses by listing symptoms,” as well as “figuring out how much of a tip to leave at a restaurant, reading QR codes, calculating, taking notes and keeping lists, mapping a trip, shopping online auctions and much more. Gee, maybe I am ‘with it’!”

Many mentioned having a spouse, child, or friend who is more tech-savvy than them and serves as an inspiration or teacher:

Checking out e-books

How they find out about the process

The patrons who responded to our online questionnaire generally learned about e-book lending at their library either at their library’s physical branch or through direct online communication from the library. One patron learned about e-book lending from signage inside the library, but added, “Our library director uses the Facebook page to communicate, which works really well for me.” (About seven in ten libraries use social networking tools such as Facebook, according to the ALA.40) Additionally, many patrons heard about e-book lending from their library’s newsletters (both print and email).

Some patrons saw announcements on their library’s websites—especially patrons who were already using the library’s website regularly to reserve books. Still others simply noticed the option for e-books in online catalogues by chance. “I heard libraries starting to lend e-books in the general media, so I went to my library website to see if they offered that service. The library doesn’t communicate with me very well, except for overdue/pickup notices,” one e-book borrower in our online panel told us, adding that she wished the library would make use of social media. “I want to feel more connected to what is happening there, but don’t find out about anything until I visit the branch and see posters on the walls.”

Others learned of the program through word-of-mouth or local newspaper ads. “A friend told me,” one patron told us. “In a small town word of mouth is always the most effective way to communicate.”

Finally, many had been unaware of whether or not their library offered e-books, but started seeking out information on e-book borrowing once they had purchased an e-reader (or were thinking of getting one).

Many librarians told us that they wanted to increase their advertising efforts. “I’d like to partner more with local business to get the word out and do some more in-house advertising,” one said.

Another librarian pointed out that while the local library system publicized its e-book collection on the library’s website and social media accounts, these methods were best at reaching patrons who were already “plugged in” to the library’s services:

“We publicize on the library website, the library’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and in house. The trouble is that libraries don’t tend to have money available for marketing. We’d love to spread the word in places where we might catch the attention of people who don’t regularly use the library; we just can’t afford to.”

Another respondent described the struggle to reach new audiences:

“I think by now most patrons realize that we offer e-books. However, my greater concern is all the people in town who aren’t patrons and don’t come to the library. We have a low rate of card holdership in our working-class, immigrant-heavy small city, especially compared to the surrounding libraries in our mostly-wealthy county. I think if more people here knew we offered e-books we could drive up our card-holder and usage stats. We need more marketing and outreach outside the building, but we’re seriously short-staffed at the moment and certainly don’t have any [money] to spend on advertising.”

For some e-book borrowers, however, system labels and nomenclature was not necessarily intuitive. One patron wrote, “I was with a friend at the branch who told me. I then picked up a card with the URL. The name of the program is OverDrive which makes no sense. I would have had no idea of what it was if the person I was with had not given me the hint.” A librarian also mentioned that awareness was not everything. “I think most patrons know about the services, but some are not quite sure how to go about actually downloading titles,” he said.

Finally, though many library staff members said that they could do more to raise patrons’ awareness of e-book lending, some said that there was no need to bring in more e-book borrowers until their e-book holdings could handle them. “I am concerned that demand so far outstrips the availability in our community that I will create too many dissatisfied users with more publicity and no more funds or availability of titles,” one director told us. Another respondent added, “At this point we are almost able to keep up with demand for titles with no special promotion. There is no plan for a special promotion until collection is larger.”

The checkout process

Among the librarians who took our online questionnaire, the most common platform for e-book lending mentioned was OverDrive, although many said they used services such as TumbleBooks, NetLibrary, and Project Gutenberg.41

Some patrons gave an overview of the sometimes complicated process and their reactions:

Most respondents said their e-books could be checked out for two or three weeks on average, and many could choose how long they wanted that period to be (one, two, or three weeks). In general, our e-book borrowers said that 21 days was usually enough time to read a book, but many wished for the ability to renew. Many also mentioned that they can’t or don’t know how to return e-books before the check-out period is up, which could contribute to longer wait lists for other patrons.

“Most books [can be checked out for] two weeks, which is plenty of time,” one patron told us. “I don’t work and can devote many hours a day to reading if I want to. Most books, of average length, I can finish in a few hours of reading time. Some of the very popular books are one week, which is enough for me.”

Some respondent were ambivalent about the two-week check-out period at their library. “Depending on the book, that can be somewhat short,” one e-book borrower wrote, “Especially if one has to share the iPad with a spouse who’s always Angry Birding or something when you’d like to use it to read something.” Another added, “[Two weeks is] not long enough because there are so few e-book copies available that I almost always have to place a hold first and then inevitably, 2-4 come available at the same time and between work, school and family, I can’t get through them all in that time.”

As one patron said, “you are constantly watching the calendar, because if the checkout period expires while you are reading it, it could be months before you are able to check it out again.”

Borrowing e-books: The good, the bad, and OverDrive

Selection of e-books in libraries

In our nationally-representative phone survey, the 12% of e-book readers who borrow e-books from libraries are generally positive about the selection they are offered. Among those who borrowed e-books from a public library in 2011, almost two-thirds say the selection at their library is “good” (32%), “very good” (18%), or “excellent” (16%). Some 23% say the selection is only “fair,” and 4% say it is “poor.”

Though the samples of subpopulations were usually too small to do detailed analysis, the people who were most tied to their libraries and felt most strongly about the library were more satisfied with the selection of e-books that was available to them.

All this evaluation by patrons comes amidst growing demand for e-book lending by libraries. According to the “2011 E-book Penetration & Use in U.S. Libraries Survey” by Library Journal and School Library Journal, 66% of public libraries “reported a steep increase in e-book requests” in the previous year; they generally expect e-book circulation to double in the coming year.42

Issues patrons have encountered

We asked those who borrowed e-books whether they had experienced several of the difficulties that could be associated with such borrowing and found that:

For the sake of comparison, we asked in our December 2011 survey if those who had read an e-book in the past year had experienced several e-book problems at bookstores or online retailers and found that 30% of e-book readers found the store or website did not carry the e-book they wanted and 8% found that the store/website version was not compatible with their digital-reading device.

 Availability

The most common complaint among those who checked out e-books from their public library was lack of availability, with 56% of e-book borrowers saying that a book they wanted to borrow was not carried by their public library.

Our online patron focus groups frequently spoke of wanting more e-books available at their libraries, especially for bestsellers—“More copies of books, more books available, longer checkout times,” one suggested. However, despite patrons’ frustrations, they were often aware of the constraints (budgetary and otherwise) their libraries faced. One respondent wrote, “The collection could be improved, but I trust the collection will grow as the technology becomes more ingrained into society.”

The average public library has 4,350 e-books available for check-out.43 As OverDrive spokesman David Burleigh told the Washington Post, it is possible that the relative scarcity of digital titles may be unavoidable due to the rate of technological change. “Libraries have had decades to build their physical catalogues,” he said, while the demand for e-books is a relatively recent phenomenon.44 For instance, at the Chicago Public Library, Computer World reported in January that “there are currently 6,443 e-book titles for borrowing, comprising about 3% of the total collection.”45

Perhaps unsurprisingly, availability was a less of a problem for e-book purchasers. Among all e-book readers, 30% had found that an online store did not carry a particular e-book they wanted to purchase.

Waiting lists

Even when a library has a digital title in its holdings, the e-book may still be unavailable for quite some time due to long wait lists. In our survey, 52% of e-book borrowers in 2011 had found that there was a waiting list for an e-book they wished to borrow from the public library. Of course, it is often the case that popular titles in printed books are also subject to wait lists.

Among the library staff who responded to our online questionnaire, a majority said that on average the waiting lists for the most popular books were a few weeks, although many also said that waiting lists were often several months for the most popular titles.

The DC metro area offers one example of how the high demand for e-books is creating extremely long waiting lists. In Fairfax County, for instance, “officials more than doubled the inventory of e-book copies from 2010 to 2011, to more than 10,000, but demand for the books tripled in that time,” according to the Washington Post, resulting in an average wait time of about three weeks. The article cited Elizabeth Rhodes, collection services coordinator for the Fairfax library system, who said that while up to 85% of the system’s e-books are checked out on a typical day, this percentage grew to 98% after the holiday gift-giving season—a time period when tablet and e- reader ownership nearly doubled among American adults.46

The patrons in our online panel had encountered many wait lists for popular titles. “I don’t think I’ve ever found a single book I wanted to check out without a waiting list, and my tastes are pretty broad,” one told us. The waits were not necessarily very long for some titles—“a week or two generally”—but they make it that much harder to find something available now. Some patrons said they often put holds on a number of books with long wait lists, only to find that many of the books become available simultaneously: “Wait times are long for popular titles, no way to stagger requests (if waiting on 5 titles and all become available at once, it’s use it or lose it), and the selection isn’t real great.”

Many patrons found the specific restrictions on digital content counterintuitive. One mused that it “seems absurd that there is only ONE copy of an e-book in demand and that only one person can use it at a time. That makes sense for a print copy, but not for an e-book.”

Compatibility

With the wide variety of e-book reading devices and e-book formats available, compatibility between devices is a major concern for libraries with digital collections.

One way this issue is managed is by partnering with an e-book distributor such as OverDrive, which manages an array of digital content for 18,000 libraries and schools in 21 countries, including 15,000 in the United States.47 OverDrive generally charges public libraries a set fee for use of their checkout system, as well as a fee per title for patrons to borrow.48 The OverDrive catalog for libraries now includes 700,000 copyrighted e-book, audiobook, music, and video titles in 52 languages. Some 35 million digital titles were checked out via OverDrive in 2011.49

Prior to 2011, e-book borrowers were able to check out several formats of e-books from their local libraries—including ePub, the free, “universal” e-book standard set by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) since 2007, used by Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and Google Books.50 However, e-book borrowers could not check out books on Amazon’s Kindle, the predominant e-reader at the time.51 In 2011, however, Amazon partnered with OverDrive, and in September 2011 library patrons who own Kindles were able to borrow Kindle books from public and school libraries in the United States.52

At the end of 2011, compatibility with the patron’s e-reader was not the most prominent problem among those who borrowed e-books from a public library in the past 12 months; about one in five e-book borrowers (18%) said they had wanted to borrow a particular e-book from their public library and found that it was not compatible with their e-book reading device.

For many in our online respondent pool of e-book borrowers, tracking down the right file format was an occasional but persistent headache. “The muddling of different formats can be a pain,” one wrote, “Especially if a book you want is available, but not in your preferred format. I always have to set my searches to leave out audiobooks, since I rarely am interested in those.” Others found it difficult to locate the correct copy. “On numerous occasions I was not paying attention and checked out the wrong format for my reader,” another respondent said.

The library staff we interviewed said they often found themselves helping patrons find the right format, particularly patrons with limited technical experience. One librarian said he encountered issues with “[t]he concept of DRM, differences in formats (ePub, PDF, AZW) and trying to explain the one-copy at a time, one patron lending model,” adding that for most of the library’s patrons, “digital means copy freely.”

Similarly, e-book compatibility was not a major frustration for e-book purchasers: Among all e-book readers, only 8% had found that compatibility was an issue when they wanted to download or purchase an e-book from an online store.

Other issues

Many patron respondents said that the e-book check-out process is relatively easy. They appreciated features like wishlists and lists of recommended e-books, the instant access, and the lack of overdue fines, as well as not having to physically return to the library when a book was due. Said one: “The site can be used with minimal learning, which is good for someone like me who is not tech savvy. It is a very quick process, which is good when I want to get a book to read right away.” Similarly, librarians often cited the ease of lending, the lack of overdue fines, and the ability of patrons to check out e-books from home as major pluses. “There is also 24 hour access to the e-books, so patron do not have to wait for the library to be open to check out a book,” one director pointed out.

However, the difficulty of browsing e-titles was a major issue for many in our online panel.53 A common thread in the responses was a frustration with library websites’ search and browsing capabilities. One librarian told us that “patrons often have a hard time finding titles and then downloading them to their particular device. It is a cumbersome, nonsensical, multi-part process in which we lose too many people along the way.” Many of the patrons in our panel had hit upon a workaround in commercial interfaces, which often include reviews, recommendations, and other ways of discovering new titles: “I will sometimes go to Amazon to find titles I might like, then search them in OverDrive, since Amazon’s interface is so much more reader friendly (tells you what else you might like, etc.)”

The process for checking out an e-book, which usually involved multiple services and log-in screens, was also unpopular. (As one patron put it, “It requires a lot of clicks and a lot of waiting.”) A librarian noted that, “with ePUB format the patrons need a PC in addition to their e-book reader; they also have to create an Adobe Digital editions account and download the software; with Kindle they are transferred to their Amazon account”—and for a library with multiple e-book vendors, patrons may have to go to even more sites to find their e-book.  As a result, many respondents (both patrons and librarians) longed for e-book titles to be integrated into the main library catalog in order to streamline the process.

One thread that ran throughout the responses to our library staff questionnaire was the ever-growing incidence of being asked to help patrons learn how to use their own devices. Issues ranged from patrons’ inexperience with technology (such as setting up and remembering their email address) to the shifting gadget landscape, which made it even harder for librarians to stay up to speed themselves. “It takes a long time to explain and walk patrons through the downloading process—about half an hour from start to finish most times—and we often feel rushed at the public assistance desk because there are often other demands on our time,” one staff member told us. Another wrote, “Many people who purchase or receive e-book readers as gifts have never turned them on before coming to the library to check out e-books. … Getting these patrons up to speed can be overwhelming.” (For more on this topic, please see Part 8: Final thoughts.)

The main questions librarians hear

We asked the librarians in our online focus group about the most common questions they received from patrons about e-books. Some involved patron confusion over the availability of e-books and unhappiness with the borrowing terms of e-books. One respondent’s summary of patrons’ queries: “Why aren’t all titles available? Why are there a limited amount of copies? Why don’t you have an entire series by the same author? Why do you have a digital audiobook but not an e-book?”

Another librarian explained the wide range of questions she regularly receives:

“Sometimes [patrons] do not understand the different formats available (Kindle, Adobe ePub, Adobe PDF, WMA or MP3) and they don’t understand which is appropriate for their device. They wish that they could download directly to the device (especially NOOK users) instead of having to go through the computer. iPad users wish they could download WMA audiobooks. They will often ask us whether NOOK or Kindle is ‘better.’ They want to know how to return/delete items. They wonder why we have a limited number of copies of digital books- they don’t understand licensing and DRM. It can be difficult for users to download Adobe software and create an Adobe ID.”

Added another, “[Patrons] can’t figure out where they’ve downloaded something, how to get it onto their reading device, have forgotten their passwords, downloaded the wrong format, can’t figure out how to delete something or return it early.”

How to improve the process for the future

Many patrons mentioned wanting more titles and more copies available to decrease wait lists for popular books, as well as longer lending periods for the e-books they did check out. Some wanted more input into the selection process for new titles, while others wanted to help out directly. “It would be great if people could donate specific e-books to the library,” wrote one. “I have a couple favorites that I would love to see added to the collection.”

Some patrons also disliked having to go through external sites such as OverDrive and Amazon. Most cited problems with the inefficiency of the process. Others raised privacy-related reasons. They also mentioned wanting more ways to discover content, especially improved search and browsing of e-book catalogs, including mobile browsing. (Some 15% of library websites are optimized for mobile devices, according to the ALA’s 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, while 7% of libraries have developed smartphone apps for access to library services.54) Many patrons also said that they would like to have more staff members available to answer questions about e-books, similar to Apple’s “Genius Bar.” Overall, however, the patrons in our focus groups were not frustrated at the libraries themselves for issues related to licensing or lack of funds. “They’re doing all they can,” said one.

We also asked patrons what their vision of e-book lending at their library would be. “Fast, easy, plentiful,” was one common response. Patrons’ answers usually mentioned increased availability, unlimited access, access to all formats, and a more streamlined discovery and check-out process:

The library staff members in our focus groups had similar dreams for e-book lending. They wrote of a world of “no holds,” integrated catalogs, unlimited tech support, even an “e-book reader petting zoo” for patrons to experiment with devices.

One librarian said that her ideal vision of e-book lending would be “books and e-book readers/e-books living in harmony.” She added, “Books are essential, because the power can go out. They are our special collections and cultural heritage. Digital access to books is incredibly important. Libraries must adapt to technological development and welcome e-lending as microlocal demand changes.”

However, many library staff respondents identified larger concerns related to the rise of e-content, and noted that some of these issues went beyond budgetary concerns:

Librarians and publishers

Echoing the comments from our online patron panel, librarians’ frustrations with the e-book lending process frequently revolved around cost and availability of titles. These issues are often related to the terms for lending set by publishers—terms that most of the librarians in our online focus groups found painfully restrictive. Most librarians said that they do not have direct contact with publishers themselves, but were very frustrated by the current terms under which they could purchase and lend e-books—especially regarding the confusion that the patrons felt:

One respondent, echoing the thoughts of many from our panel, said that her dream would be for her library “to have the ability to purchase, own and offer any book we chose in an electronic format with cross-device compatibility, setting our own lending parameters and integrating seamlessly an e-book collection with the rest of the library collection.”

  1. “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2011-2012,” the American Library Association and the Information Policy & Access Center (University of Maryland), June 19, 2012.
    http://www.ala.org/research/plftas/2011_2012
  2. Note: This was not an exhaustive list, and respondents could choose multiple answers. And though our opt-in online questionnaire focused on public libraries, staff from many types of libraries participated.
  3. http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2011/10/ebooks/dramatic-growth-ljs-second-annual-ebook-survey/
  4. “2011 E-book Penetration & Use in U.S. Libraries Survey” from Library Journal and School Library Journal http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2011/10/ebooks/dramatic-growth-ljs-second-annual-ebook-survey/
  5. Christian Davenport, “As demand for e-books soars, libraries struggle to stock their virtual shelves.” Washington Post, A20, January 14, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/as-demand-for-e-books-soars-libraries-struggle-to-stock-their-virtual-shelves/2012/01/13/gIQAkIOXzP_story.html
  6. http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9223535/E_book_library_borrowing_hits_record_pace
  7. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/01/23/tablet-and-e-book-reader-ownership-nearly-double-over-the-holiday-gift-giving-period/
  8. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/01/industry-news/adding-kindle-compatibility-expanded-overdrives-u-s-library-network-by-36-percent/
  9. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705394575/SL-library-pays-more-for-e-books-than-for-print.html
  10. OverDrive Press Release, “e-book Discovery and Sampling Skyrocketing at Public Libraries,” January 19, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2012. http://www.overdrive.com/News/e-book-Discovery-and-Sampling-Skyrocketing-at-Public-Libraries
  11. http://idpf.org/epub
  12. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/21/technology/21amazon.html
  13. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20110420005787/en/Amazon-Launch-Library-Lending-Kindle-books Kindles still cannot read ePub, although there are several programs available to convert ePub files to a Kindle-readable format.
  14. Similar issues have also been discussed in Library Journal’s recent report, “Library Websites and Virtual Services.” http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2012/06/digital-libraries/how-do-power-patrons-use-your-website-and-virtual-services-patron-profiles/
  15. “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2011-2012,” the American Library Association and the Information Policy & Access Center (University of Maryland), June 19, 2012.
    http://www.ala.org/research/plftas/2011_2012