Foreword Reviews

Why are Libraries Failing to Loan E-Books? Lead Patrons to the Digital Waters


It’s frustrating, right? You spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on a fancy-schmancy digital book loaning system, and then your taxpaying patrons don’t use it. You know they’ve got smartphones—they’re constantly yakking on them in your quiet study area—so what gives?

The fact is that e-book and e-audiobook usage is rising among younger people, noncollege-educated people, and people in minority groups. The inherent possibilities of access for disabled, homebound, and elderly people should be thrilling for public libraries. Our biggest problem is that we’re stuck in buildings. This is a way out.

So step 1 is to get excited. You’re in people’s pockets now. You’re on the train with them. Whether they’re using your system yet or not, the possibility exists. Better yet, the possibility of a spike in your stats exists. Ever have someone demand to know how the library is “relevant” anymore? “Oh, you must not have heard about our e-book lending program!”

Conversation and a friendly attitude can work wonders in this case. Knowing our patrons—knowing about incidentals like long commutes, for example—can be a good entry point. Here are a few talking points to remember:

  • If you’ve got Wi-Fi in the library, your patron doesn’t need to use their data plan to use e-book lending. Patrons who are used to streaming video on the subway or in the car may automatically assume that audiobooks are live. Au contraire. Just keep space considerations in mind. E-books use very little space, but e-audiobooks are weightier.

  • No late fees and no need to return the books manually. Hooray! The e-book lending process is financially painless, especially for busy people who never have time to make it to the library. (It is also ideal for people without the resources to risk incurring late fees in the first place.) Remember one thing, however: patrons who borrow through a Kindle will see an ad for the book on their device even after it has returned itself. It is disturbingly easy to accidentally buy the thing if one-click purchasing is enabled. Warn them and show them where the device settings are located in their Amazon account. That’s where you can delete the ghost of a borrowed e-book for good.

  • Your patron may be able to sign up for a state library as well as a local one. If you live in Massachusetts, for example, you’re entitled to a Boston Public Library card, which you can get online. Then, you can use that card to borrow from the state library e-book catalog in addition to the one owned by your local library. I find that this information is almost always a hit, especially when patrons come to my library from outside of my consortium. Does state library borrowing draw precious stats away from my local library? Maybe a little. But in this case, I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. Before using our e-book platforms regularly, patrons must be comfortable with the mere concept of digital borrowing. If borrowing from another library’s catalog helps with that, I’m game.

Key to this entire system, of course, is having staff who know what they’re doing. It isn’t a bad idea to have one or two point people in each department of your library, but if you can, train everybody in your library and encourage them to use e-book lending as much as possible themselves. If they’re comfortable, your patrons will be, too. This goes triple for older staff members. The patrons who can get the most use out of e-books are those with limited mobility and visual problems. Having a few gray heads on hand to demonstrate that the e-reader won’t bite can very effective for converting technologically skittish baby boomers.

Finally, don’t be afraid to make it a party. Stickers and shelf markers are always good ideas, but the fun doesn’t have to stop there. (I won’t list every possible idea. You’ve got Pinterest.) Holding programs just to teach people how to borrow e-books can add a fun social dimension to e-book lending, especially if you pair it with related programs, like digital self-publishing. You could even go big with an online Community Read.

However you jump into e-books, jump in with both feet. Though the supporting tech may change, e-books in one form or another are probably in our future for keeps. We can get on top of that now, when people are still in the process of migrating to e-books, or try to grapple with it when we have millions of experienced, entrenched users to educate all at once. I advocate an immediate approach. For once, libraries are on the front of a great wave of change in how we read. Let’s take advantage.

Anna Call
Anna Call is a reference librarian at the Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @evil_librarian.

Anna Call

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