Cindy Orr, in her monthly blog post, takes a look at the surge in eBook usage and discusses how libraries can serve their customers now that the format has gone mainstream.

Back in September I speculated that we were beginning the approach to the print/digital tipping point. Experts were predicting that the “death of the book” would be complete in 5 or 10 years, and Amazon reported selling more eBooks than hardcovers for the first time. But here we are, only 4 months later, and things seem to have already begun tipping.

As you no doubt read earlier on this blog and elsewhere, OverDrive libraries experienced a huge spike in eBook traffic over the Christmas holiday. In 2010, eBook checkouts were up 200% over 2009, and for the first time since audiobooks were introduced, eBooks outcirculated audio in OverDrive libraries. Online eBook stores reported similar skyrocketing statistics, and it’s clear that devices for reading eBooks were huge sellers over the holiday.

The biggest news, though, may be that USA Today reported that of the top 50 books on their bestseller list last week, 19 titles sold more digital copies than print copies. This includes not only older hot titles like The Girl Who Played With Fire, but relatively new titles like James Patterson’s Cross Fire and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which were first published in December.

The upshot is that reading books in digital form has finally hit the mainstream…over 7 years after the first library introduced the OverDrive service in April, 2003. It took the advertising power of Amazon to eventually get the attention of the public when its Kindle reader was introduced only 3 years ago toward the end of 2007. But libraries were early adopters of eBooks, as we often have been with new information technology, and libraries are providing effective and well used eBook and audiobook services to our patrons, who downloaded and checked out over 15 million digital titles last year.

But what does this change mean for us? Some say that, unlike earlier format innovations such as cassette and CD audiobooks, or videocassettes and DVDs, the eBook revolution is not a brand new program that offers users an exciting never-before-available service. They say that this is a new version of that old library standard, the book, and libraries are in danger of becoming obsolete museums full of outdated artifacts.

But is this true? Isn’t an eBook just a new format for the same content? Just as audiobooks allowed people to enjoy a book in a new way, eBooks do the same thing. The content is the same, but the container is different. Factory workers in the early 1800s had books read aloud to them while they worked. That was the audiobook of its day. But, just as modern audiobooks introduced excellent professional readers and the portability to take them with you, eBooks offer a lightweight and portable option for reading books, and the ability to check them out without traveling to the library. They will most likely evolve into something more than they are right now. That’s okay. I have no doubt that libraries are ready for that as long as publishers allow us to buy their content.

So librarians have been ahead of the curve in the adoption of the use of eBooks… first live online, and later in downloadable versions. But now we need to figure out how to fold this service into the mainstream of our systems. For eBooks used in research this will be fairly easy. We have already incorporated them into our catalogs and will continue to improve access to them. But for pleasure reading, there is a greater challenge.

Many, if not most, readers need or want help finding books to read for fun. Modern libraries began to address this need in the late 1980s by implementing a wide range of readers’ advisory services such as themed displays, read-alike lists, podcasts, book clubs, shelves of books arranged face out, and, of course, individualized RA service, both in person and remotely. The next step should include a way to display eBooks within the library building itself, as we do for print books. How will we do this? We can offer selected displays on our websites, but how will we do it in the library building itself? And what else do we need to do in order to take this service to the next level?

Any ideas? I’ll start. We can enhance the “displays” of downloadable eBooks by providing more themed lists on our websites. We could show these virtual displays on a large screen next to the circulation or readers’ advisory desk, and use it as a focal point for explaining our digital services to in library patrons.

This is an exciting time to be a librarian. We need to continue to innovate, and librarians have shown the power of their creative ideas over and over in the past. We can do it again. What else would you like to see in our digital reading future?

3 Responses to “If we’ve reached the eBook tipping point, what’s next?”

  1. Terry Palin

    What would be the chance that OverDrive could develop a way for individual libraries to “push” content to our clients onfile email addresses? That way, we could have clients opp-in to receiving these push items where we could do some general RA. For example, I might have a specific title that is new and I want to highlight. I could push this to clients.
    Unfortuanely, I am unable to tweet and/or facebook with my clients (students) due to district restrictions.

  2. Line

    I would love better searching capabilities of eBook collections. I spend too much time browsing and not finding what I want. Better subject access would be great. It is great when the libraries include individual eBooks in their catalogs, but I often would love to be able to add limiters on the Overdrive page of my local public library.

  3. Michael Henry Starks

    Many libraries have closed-circuit television systems with flat-panel displays mounted on walls throughout the building. They use them to make announcements and deliver other information to patrons. OverDrive could produce videos and/or screencasts that feature the latest titles. Libraries could download those video or screencast files and play them over their CCTV systems. Or, perhaps OverDrive could produce video, screencast or PowerPoint templates that a library could download. The library could insert their own images, text or videos that feature the titles the library has recently acquired for patrons to download.