The dogma is that electronic books won’t work out for most recreational reading. Supposedly librarians should confine e-books to nonfiction categories like reference–with a few exceptions such as sci-fi and other genres for geeks.

But in a brave and useful experiment, the Cleveland public library system is defying the know-it-alls–and guess what? As I noted yesterday, the Number One circulating title in 2003 was The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel. Not exactly a dictionary or a space epic. Same for Split Second by David Baldacci (Number Two), Devil’s Bride by Stephanie Laurens (Number Three) and Worth at Any Price by Lisa Kleypas (Number Five).

The only nonfiction title in the top five was The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People by David Niven (Number Four), and just five other nonfiction books made the top 25. Part of the reason could be that the collection is especially strong on fiction. Still, e-stores like Fictionwise, Blackmask and eBookAd are also playing up fiction. I’d emphatically question Walt Crawford’s assertion that e-books readers really won’t care that much about reading fiction all the way through.

No mystery as to how Cleveland built up interest in fiction. Teaming up with OverDrive, the library gave its e-book area the flair you’d expect to see in a bookstore. I personally dislike OverDrive’s proprietary formats (right now you can download books only in PDF and Palm, not Microsoft Reader or my pet proprietary choice of the moment, Mobipocket), but I think Tish Lowrey, CPL’s tech services head, deserves some loud applause for her efforts to popularize e-books for recreational reading. They’re a natural. Libraries don’t want to buy zillions of copies of best-sellers in paper, only to see them neglected after six months. Limited experimentation today could save some big money tomorrow and promote book reading among young people, who are more and more Net-oriented.

To be sure, Cleveland’s e-book circulation is now just a speck of the number for p-books despite a first-week spike in demand. Based on a perusal of the area, with special attention paid to books labeled “checked out,” I’d say the stats would not be awesome (no information available to me on the number of different patrons accessing the e-collection each month). Just the same, as I see it, the CPL is off to an acceptable start, given the major challenges of formats (a consideration not as high up on Lowrey’s own list) and technology (I myself won’t expect much for e-books in libraries until tech is less of a hassle, although e-book-oriented PDA classes at library branches could help immensely in my opinion).

Ideally other library systems will follow Cleveland’s example. Pinch pennies, but within your budget, do get your feet wet and think about CPL-style experimentation with popular titles even if the circulation will be tiny at the start. If your library system can’t afford a Cleveland-style effort, you might at least want to try give-aways of public domain works, which is less of a challenge now that they’re available for free online from 10,000 eBooks and Black Mask in a bunch of formats. Black Mask even sells inexpensive disks that each contain thousands of books, and, without all the format-related wrinkles, you can also get free disks from Project Gutenberg. Team up with local computer clubs and civic-minded computer shops to help people get the support they need, and think about coordination with local school systems, whose students, for example, could benefit from Gutenberg novels in English and history classes. Let me know what happens.

Meanwhile, edited, here is an e-mail interview I conducted with Lowrey yesterday.

Q. The exact number of e-books in the CPL collection now?

A. 2,832 titles–4,014 copies.

Q. What do you expect it to be one year and five years from now?

A. Next year–3,500+ titles: 6,000+ copies. In five years–no idea.

Q. What you expect the monthly and yearly circulation numbers to be one year and five years from now?

A. No idea; will depend on the available content from publishers. [Amen! A great argument as I see it for a well-stocked national digital library system in the TeleRead vein, with plenty of opportunities for localization in Cleveland and elsewhere! At the same time, no matter where I am, I want access to oddball items like my George Gissing favorites. Not to mention books for research! I regard the best-seller-focused approach as appropriate now, but only as a form of triage, given the library’s limited resources for experimentaton. We need a rich collection of all kinds of books online, and I suspect Lowrey would agree.- DR.]

Q. The churn rate? Just how often do you change X percentage of titles?

A. No particular rate. We drop outdated titles, superceded editions and copies that have never circulated.

Q. Are you concerned that some library patrons might regret the absence of previously accessed titles?

A. No more than with paper books.

Q. Is quality–as opposed to popularity–is at least a minor factor in deciding what e-books you keep available?

A. Yes.

Q. Are you worried that the weeding out process could interfere with the library’s serving people with special needs or special tastes?

A. No.

Q. Do patrons call up with support questions, and what are the most common? Do you feel your people adequately respond? If not, how do you think the system could do better?

A. They e-mail our Automation department, usually about downloading the reading software or getting a library card. The feedback and follow-up from the public is very, very positve.

Q. The cost of OverDrive’s services per year or by any other other meaningful measurement?

A. Don’t know about the OverDrive service costs. Our overall cost per book is about $9.25 a copy and we own the books.

Q. Will you make any arrangements for accessing classics? I did see only three Dickens novels.

A. Depends on what is available and if we are asked for more.

Q. Will the collection include provisions for giving away public domain titles, rather than just lending them out? In what formats? If you won’t give away public domain titles, I’d be interested in knowing the reasons why not.

A. We support links to Project Gutenberg and other sites including public domain sites on our website (Databases/Reading Room/Read Books Online).

Further comments on Lowrey’s remarks: I myself would hope that libraries could keep lots and lots of old books around, which is easier to do with e- than p-books. Just the same, the Gutenberg links will help some, and TeleRead could help still more with classics and other serious titles. What’s more, I can appreciate Tish Lowrey’s eagerness to use the e-book format to drive down the cost of offering best-sellers and reduce the waiting time. Those are key issues in terms of patron satisfaction.

DRM-limit details: From the Policies and Procedures page: “You can have up to 3 eBooks checked out at any given time…Typically, the lending period for eBooks is 21 days, but can differ from eBook to eBook…Palm eBooks cannot be returned early.” Adobe books can be returned early. Just the same, with a three-book limit, I myself would feel constrained. Ideally Cleveland can find a way to loosen up the borrowing limit, which, if a student researching a school paper, I would find to be a problem. Too, I notice that readers may encounter problems moving books from machine to machine. Simply put, more flexible DRM could go a long way.

Another library using OverDrive’s system: I haven’t really checked it out, but I should note that the public library system in King County, Washington, also has an area featuring e-books from OverDrive. There is not as much focus on best-sellers, and the “Literature” is the first listed category–with classics ranging from 1984 to Anna Karenia. In the cases of both Cleveland and Kings County, I’d love to see links from the classics-related pages to the equivalent Gutenberg titles. That might not be the best for the libraries’ official circulation figures but could be a godsend for schoolchildren and others who could avoid fighting over the same books–remember, Gutenberg books are free. Great budget-stretchers!


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