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Libraries Grapple With The Downside Of E-Books


We're going to learn now about how libraries are adjusting to the new world of digital books. Digital readers are still turning to their libraries. In fact, libraries have seen a surge in demand for e-book titles.

But as Ben Bradford of member station WNYC reports, for libraries digital books are providing both promise and problems.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: It's pretty clear that patrons here at the Central Library in Queens want e-books. So last month this became the first library in New York to start lending e-readers. Fifty of the devices were pre-loaded with dozens of books each. Librarian Wanda Wright didn't even need to put up signs.

WANDA WRIGHT: They went as quick as the customers came through the door - the e-readers were gone.

BRADFORD: The e-reader program is primarily for people who don't already have devices or can't afford them. For those who do, the library offers thousands of e-books for download. Queens Library CEO Tom Galante says this is the library's mission: offering content in any form it may take.

TOM GALANTE: We are the only place in town where no matter what your age, you can come in and access all the information that's available throughout the world, whether it's on the Internet or it's in print.

BRADFORD: Demand for e-books might offer some relief to libraries after years of budget cuts. Digital books cut the cost of labeling, shelving and tracking physical books.

GALANTE: In Queens, we have over 70,000 books a day that we check back in and 70,000 going out. So in a digital world, there's considerable savings to libraries.

BRADFORD: Fewer shelves could open valuable space for other library programs, like computer centers, teen tutoring, and adult education classes. For customers, downloading e-books is just convenient. Gussie Young has been checking out books at the Queens Library since moving to New York in 1963. Now with e-readers, she doesn't have to come here to check out books.

GUSSIE YOUNG: I can do it right from my house. I can do it from my computer if I wish. Just hit the button and it comes to your computer. It's a wonderful thing, if you can find a book you want.

BRADFORD: And there are no late fees. The book just disappears on the due date. But despite their potential, libraries are struggling to stock e-books. Most major publishers impose heavy restrictions or refuse to lend their titles. They're afraid that could undercut digital sales.

According to the American Library Association, the e-book "Eisenhower in War and Peace," costs more than a hundred dollars a copy. Amazon sells it retail for $20. Here's Queens Library spokeswoman Joanne King.

JOANNE KING: If someone else has it, you have to wait your turn to get it. Just like paper books. I'm sure there's some people who possibly will never get a chance at some of the best sellers.

BRADFORD: Another problem is that almost all U.S. libraries that offer e-books do so through an outside company called Overdrive. And libraries don't actually buy the e-books. They're in a way renting them. Here's Tom Galante, who runs the Queens Library.

GALANTE: When you license content through them, you really aren't owning the content. Every year you have to pay them to continue to have that subscription service or you lose your content that you've already paid for.

BRADFORD: If a library stops using Overdrive, it could lose all the books it's licensed through the company. Robert Wolven heads an American Library Association group that's trying to develop a new model - one that that publishers would buy into and would eliminate middlemen.

ROBER WOLVEN: These are questions that go beyond what we're doing now, what we'll be doing next year. We've talked about how we want to avoid developing the model for next year that's going to be obsolete by the time anybody gets to put it in place, and that's a real challenge.

BRADFORD: For now, despite the limits for libraries, readers are still lining up, waiting to download.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Bradford is a city kid, who came to Charlotte from San Francisco by way of New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Prior to his career in journalism, Ben spent time as an actor, stuntman, viral marketer, and press secretary for a Member of Congress. He graduated from UCLA in 2005 with a degree in theater and from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2012. As a reporter, his work has been featured on NPR, WNYC, the BBC, and Public Radio International.