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Menomonee Falls Library Patrons Trade Pages for Screens

Electronic book borrowing has surged at the Menomonee Falls Public Library and across the state. While the technology offers convenience, libraries still face an uphill battle to utilize the online program to its greatest extent.

Patrons of the and across the state are turning a new page — or more accurately clicking a button — in they way they borrow books.

The age of the electronic reader is upon us, and the popularity of the new device is growing. Since an initial boom during the 2010 holiday season, sales of the devices have grown exponentially and are expected to peak at 14 million by 2013, according to PC World. With a growing variety to choose from, there's an e-reader to suit the needs of anyone.

However, while e-readers are gaining traction with bookworms around the country, book publishers are still digging their heels limiting users' accessibility to electronic copies of books. Libraries across the nation face an uphill battle to utilize online book borrowing to its fullest extent.

Electrically charged growth

Evidence of the rapid transition from page to screen is emerging at the local library. If you didn’t already know, the Falls library utilizes a statewide electronic book borrowing program called OverDrive. With a library card, you can temporarily download books wherever you have access to a computer.

Books will stay on a device for roughly one or two weeks depending on the title’s popularity and then simply disappear. Therefore, no more late fees or lost books.

Library Public Services Manager Kiflie Scott said the MFPL has featured the state’s program for e-book rentals since 2009. However, users have just started to utilize the virtual library desk, and the program’s popularity has skyrocketed.

“Really, after November and December, we saw usage of the service double as many people were gifted electronic readers for the holidays,” said Scott, who is a recent convert to an e-reader.

In August 2011, just 186 books were checked out virtually by Falls patrons, but by April 2012 circulation jumped roughly 2 1/2 times to 449 checkouts. In fact, across the entire Waukesha County library system monthly electronic book downloads have more than doubled. Now, nearly 60,000 electronic copies of books have been checked out at libraries across the county in less than a year, with an average of 7,500 to 8,000 books checked out monthly.

“It’s just another way that we can be a resource for the community. It’s another usage for us,” Scott said.

Across the state, the furious growth of e-book rentals is also evident. Sara Gold, a purchasing librarian with Wisconsin Library Services, oversees the digital borrowing program used by libraries across the 17 regions in the state. She said 2012 will be a record year.

“Already, by July 2012, we will have surpassed our electronic book circulation for the entire year in 2011 — even accounting for the holiday boom,” Gold said. “The problem we have is that the demand is far exceeding what we had anticipated, which is a good problem to have.”

It's also a national trend. According to PaidContent.org, 67 percent of all U.S. libraries offer e-books, and 28 percent of libraries across the nation rent out e-readers to patrons. However, the article also notes that relations are fraught between libraries and book publishers.

Circulation totals could be much larger.

Waiting in a digital line

You may be asking, “How can demand outweigh supply in an electronic medium?”

Although a book on OverDrive is available at the push of a button, the libraries across the state can only hold a limited number of “copies” on the electronic shelf. Essentially, Gold said it’s no different that having a physical book in any given library.

”After November and December, we saw usage of the service double as many people were gifted electronic readers for the holidays."

For example, “50 Shades of Grey,” a very popular erotic title right now, has over 1,500 holds on a limited supply of copies. Those who want to check it out now may be waiting for a spell — even in the instantaneous world of the Internet.

“No matter how many copies we get, it’s nearly impossible to keep up,” Gold said.

Gold said it’s a result of an uphill battle against book publishers who are resistant to allowing unlimited downloads of popular titles. Each electronic copy costs $60 to $80 for the library, rather than the $5 to $20 a consumer may pay.

“It’s much more expensive to purchase e-books for the library,” Gold said. “We are trying to work with publishers to have them see that we are working with them and not against them.”

Another factor working against libraries is that only two of the six major publishers distribute books electronically to libraries. That’s why you may not find your favorite titles on OverDrive. However, those same publishers will sell the physical copies of their book to the library.

Gold said Wisconsin is joining with federated library systems across the nation to change publishers’ perspective and increase the diversity and availability of titles online — especially with usage rates growing at such a high rate.

“It’s very frustrating for us, our libraries, and our patrons. A lot of patrons don’t understand that we don’t have certain titles because we aren’t permitted,” Gold said. “We are working at a grassroots level locally and nationally to work with these publishers to show that libraries aren’t a threat to their bottom lines.”

Gold's frustration isn't the only drop in the pond for libraries seeking to exapnd the selection online. The debate with publishers has caught the attention of the American Library Association. In their opinion, the new digital frontier has forced libraries to once agin pay attention to negotiations with publishers.

“If anything, this new ebook market is even more challenging to publishers than it is to libraries, and that’s why we face such turbulence,” stated Robert C. Maier and Carrie Russell, authors of an article that appeared Tuesday in American Libraries magazine - the official publication of the American Library Association.

According to an article in New York Times, traditional book loans at the library offer a bit of an inconvinience for patrons. They need to borrow the book and return it in two trips - unlike at a bookstore where it's one stop. Now, e-books offer a bit of convinience, and publishers are seeking ways to inconvinience users to protect the bottom line.

In the meantime, each of the 17 Wisconsin library systems and individual libraries recently contributed funding to the electronic collection to foster its growth. Along with a grant, $1 million was raised to spend digitally.

“We have a huge infusion of money in terms of collection development,” Gold said. “We feel the frustration that if it’s an e-book, why can’t we just lend it out? But we are making progress. We hope that by partnering with collections around the country we can use that collective power to educate publishers.”

You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.

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