From the trenches: Just 1,800 e-books in Wis. state collection for publibs—and an eBabel challenge

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Rochelle Hartman, a veteran librarian now working as Manager of Information Services at the La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin, wrote the essay below with her personal thoughts. Share your own! Needless to say, a national digital library system could help boost the number of library e-books.

imageThis past Saturday, I stopped by the nook kiosk at Barnes & Noble so that I could chat with the sales rep and better explain exactly what the library had to offer from Overdrive.

We’ve had a few patrons who’ve said they were told by B&N sales staff that they could find tons of free books at the library. While, technically, this is true, if you count the public domain content, most people were already force-fed the classics at some point during their formal education and want something a little more current.

At B&N, I waited at least ten minutes to get the guy’s attention. In that ten minutes, he sold at least two nooks, and lost another customer who decided to come back later. No, it’s not a good idea to engage retail employees on the Saturday before Christmas. Especially one who is hawking The Hot Item on Everyone’s Christmas List at a kiosk in the entry of a mall anchor store. What I mean to say is, Holy cow, that joint was jumpin’!Image by Matt Locke is Creative Commons-licensed.

Other people stood and listened—there was kind of a county fair/veg-o-matic vibe to the scene. Finally, I saw a break, jumped in and introduced myself as someone from the library who wanted to make sure B&N staff understood exactly what we had to offer, since I wasn’t sure the right message was getting out. We barely got started when more customers came up to the kiosk. I stepped back and let the rep work. After about five minutes, I gave up and went browsing. I came back about 20 minutes later and managed to catch him in between customers and we ended up having a great chat.

He’s already a library user, but wasn’t really familiar with Overdrive except on a basic level. So, I gave him the talk that I’ve been giving all the patrons who are smart enough to come to us before buying an e-reader.

Are You Really Ready to Buy an Ereader?: Overdrive-Compatible Version

First off, Kindle does not work with Overdrive. Sometimes, though, a patron will leave after a discussion having decided that a Kindle is the best choice for them. These are people who: a) Do not mind paying for content; b) Do not care about closed, proprietary format; c) May not be very tech savvy and/or want something very easy to use and; d) Want a wealth of content to choose from. There’s a reason why Kindle makes up the bulk of the ereader market. I have questions to help patrons get to the Kindle/Overdrive/forget-it point, but this post focuses on the Overdrive/forget-it questions. Overdrive does a good job of keeping their page of compatible devices up-to-date. This post also does not address the issue of what kind of Overdrive-compatible ereader is best, or further explore the Tower of eBabel issue—those clashing ebook formats.

Once it’s established that a patron is wedded to an Overdrive-compatible device, the first question I ask is: What kind of reader are you? Are you a voracious reader? Are you a discriminating reader, or will you read anything? Do you want hot titles or do you really like the classics?

After this, we co-browse the Overdrive interface and look at what is available. Winding Rivers Library System currently only participates in the statewide Overdrive resource.* As of this writing, there are only about 1,800 ebook titles available to the entire state of Wisconsin. If you click on “currently available eBooks” that number goes down to fewer than 200–usually the same titles every time–”Blueprint Reading,” “Careers in Engineering,” and several series of graphic novels. There also tend to be high numbers of holds on the popular titles.

While co-browsing this list, I tend to see a lot of wrinkled noses and dismayed looks, which is when I deliver what is probably the deciding phrase: “for you to get really good use out of an ereader, you’ll probably end up buying a lot of the content you read for the next couple years.” For people who already buy print books, this is no big deal. But for people who rely on the library for free books and other content (or who are considering an ereader for someone else), this is a patently unpalatable idea. It’s at this point where people go, “what the heck, I’m in” or decide that it’s not the right time to take the digital plunge.

The reactions of those who decide it’s not time are varied. Some are deeply disappointed because they had been led to believe by all the hype that it was something that it clearly is not. 1800 books is not a digital revolution. Some seem a little relieved because they were on the fence. The one common reaction is that everyone has been grateful for the honest discussion about the situation. I encourage everyone to check back with us in six months—on the Overdrive page or to friend us on Facebook—for updates on the situation. I tell them that it will get better. I apologize for not being able to deliver awesome service this way, the same way we can in other ways.

As a member of the state Overdrive ordering committee, I can tell you that there’s an effort to get as much new content into the state Overdrive system as soon as possible, given budget and other limitations. Libraries and library systems came up with $20,000 for a year-end challenge match, knowing that Santa would deliver a lot of ereaders this Christmas, and another big order will be made in January. Unfortunately, the discounts for ebooks are not there as for print books, so the money doesn’t go as far. The other limitation, which I discovered when venturing into the Overdrive catalog as a first time selector, is that content is much more limited. I decided to focus on teen titles and started out with Amazon “best” and “bestsellers” lists, since I’m not up on teen titles. I wish I’d kept track of hits and misses, but my guess is that less than 30% (and probably more like 20%) of hot/new/top-selling teen titles in Amazon were available in Overdrive EPUB. Overdrive can only sell what they can get. I don’t know if exclusive deals are being struck with Amazon, or what, but it was kind of a grim exercise for me. I hope I can make good on my promise that it will get better and that libraries aren’t shut out of the digital mix.

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(Individual libraries within the system are eligible to purchase additional copies of popular titles via Overdrive's Advantage Program, but La Crosse Public Library has decided that it is not in our best interest in our role as a resource library to limit titles to city patrons. We feel very strongly about this and hope that Overdrive opens Advantage up to system sharing very soon. We’ve never limited print books to city residents and won’t do it with digital books.)

Reproduced with permission from Rochelle’s Tinfoil and Raccoon blog.

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on “From the trenches: Just 1,800 e-books in Wis. state collection for publibs—and an eBabel challenge
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