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Digital Book World: Where do libraries and ebooks meet?

January 26, 2011 | 11:48 am

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Is there a place for ebooks in libraries? To start things off Wednesday at the Digital Book World panel "The eBook Ecosystem: Where Do Libraries Fit?," moderator Josh Hadro of Library Journal referenced an ebook feasibility study for public libraries. It included quotes from librarians and library administrators, including "I worry that we don't have a seat at the table," and "the boat left without us."

But this panel, like so many at the conference being held in New York City this week, wanted to stay positive. The panelists were Christopher Platt of the New York Public Library, Ruth Liebmann of Random House, George Coe from the book distributor Baker and Taylor and Steve Potash from Overdrive, a software company that provides ebooks to vendors and libraries, including the Los Angeles Public Library.

Libraries have adopted a model referred to in this session as one-book, one-lend. Under this model, a book is licensed by the library; a patron comes in and downloads that book for a set circulation period. When the period is over, the file is no longer accessible. Readers who want to read a popular book get into a queue and wait until the previous patron's checkout time has finished.

Platt noted that librarians are already immersed in reading communities, something publishers are trying to figure out how to build. And library patrons are rapidly adopting ebooks: The New York Public Library had a record-breaking 36,000 ebook checkouts in December, particularly in the week after Christmas.

Random House's Liebmann countered a misperception: "A library book does not compete with a sale," she said. "A library book is a sale."

"Public library sales total $850 million," said Coe of Baker and Taylor. Although libraries are often thought of as a place to find a book that's been around for a while, Coe explained, "98% of budgets are spent within 18 months of a book's publication." He thinks libraries will learn more about their patrons who check out ebooks, and may change their acquisition patterns.

The idea that libraries can provide both outreach and publicity for publishers came up more than once. "Public libraries are more important than some blogger," said Potash from Overdrive. "The library is the best way to elevate your sales. The data is starting to prove it."

Although most publishers have made ebooks available to libraries, some have not. Platt noted that two recent bestsellers -- Keith Richards' "Life" and Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" -- were not available, although the New York Public Library's patrons wanted them.

Potash said this won't last. The goal, he said, is for "the consumer to have too much road rash trying to get at the book."

And the panel ended on a positive note: Go to the next American Library Assn. meeting and share as much enthusiasm for ebooks as was shared here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Christopher Platt from the New York Public Library and the other panelists of "The Ebook Ecosystem: Where Do Libraries Fit?" panel at Digital Book World. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times

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