ANNAPOLIS – When the heads of Maryland public libraries opted to create a statewide e-book loaning program in the spring of 2004, they weren’t sure if e-books would last. But they decided to gamble on the young technology.
As e-books have exploded in popularity, that gamble now seems prophetic.
“We had the dumb luck of getting in really early,” said Scott Reinhart, the self-styled “ringleader” of Maryland’s Digital e-Library Consortium, which will be 10 years old in October.
The consortium allowed Maryland to be one of the first states to offer e-books for desktop computers, according to Carla Hayden, CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library.
An e-book, or electronic book, offers the same content as a physical printed book, but in a format that can be read on a computer, tablet, smartphone, or a dedicated e-reader – such as a Nook.
Now, Reinhart said, the consortium offers more than 45,000 e-books and 15,000 audiobooks for desktops, tablets and smartphones for all counties except Prince George’s, which has its own collection. States that created similar library programs later often have fewer than 10,000, according to John Taube, director of the Allegany County Library System.
Reinhart said getting in the e-book game early meant that the cost of setting up the consortium was far lower than other states would face now. Overdrive, the e-book distributor that powers the consortium, was “eager and hungry and wanted everything we could give them” at the time.
In the decade since, Overdrive became the lead distributor of e-books to libraries, according to the American Library Association, so “they can be a little bit more picky,” according to Reinhart.
Hayden said that Maryland’s political structure made it easy to facilitate the consortium’s creation. In Maryland, each county’s libraries pool their collections, allowing for easy statewide book-sharing. Other states have more independent libraries, making a statewide e-book collection less feasible.
The system does have its downsides for libraries. Many publishers initially hesitated to offer libraries e-versions of their books. While that tide is turning, e-books still can be “ridiculously expensive” for libraries, according to Reinhart.
Some publishers fear library e-books deter sales, so they often charge libraries much higher prices for e-copies. Taube said an e-book that costs consumers $9.99 on Amazon may cost a library as much as $90.
“It’s a balancing act between providing access to a new format and being wise stewards of public money,” Taube said.
But patrons’ responses are making e-books worth the expense. Stephanie Petruso, virtual services manager for Anne Arundel County Public Library, said that since last year, monthly e-book rentals have increased nearly 58 percent. Taube added that e-books represent 3 to 10 percent of a library’s total circulation, depending on the county.
Librarians have benefitted from the consortium as well. Petruso said that saving shelf space and no longer needing to worry about late fees were among e-readers’ biggest benefits.
“Just think of what that helps librarians do in terms of their bookkeeping,” said Hayden.
While there were some that tried to halt the advance of e-reading, Reinhart said the format’s victory was inevitable.
“We can resist all we want, but technology’s going to win. Convenience always wins,” he said.
Libraries sometimes struggle to spread the word of their new e-capabilities. Petruso said that launching Anne Arundel County Public Library’s e-book and e-reader loan campaign took “a lot of word-of-mouth marketing.”
According to 2012 Pew Research Center study, this is not unusual. About 62 percent of those surveyed nationwide did not know whether their libraries offered e-books or e-readers.
But still, the demand for library e-capabilities is growing — not just for e-books, but the devices themselves. Almost half of those who do not currently borrow e-books from a public library said they would be likely to borrow an e-reader preloaded with a desired book.
And the growth of e-books isn’t coming at physical books’ expense. Another Pew study from 2014 found that only 4 percent of readers use e-books exclusively.
“I don’t think print books are going away,” said Hayden. “If they hadn’t been invented, they would be now … if the power goes out, you’re OK.”
But the growing number of e-readers and tablets mean librarians often have to fill the role of tech support, especially for older users who get e-readers as holiday gifts but may not be tech-savvy.
“People like to come in and talk to a librarian,” said Petruso.
For Taube, a library embracing e-readers fits with a key part of the library’s mission.
“We need to be a safe place for people to try out new technology in our community,” he said.