“You can’t judge a book by its proprietary format.” “I can read you like an enhanced font ePub download.” Since these phrases haven’t quite made it into daily vernacular - yet (but you read them here first if they do!), we can safely assume that for the time being, books in the bound-paper manifestation so many of us love have not yet been blown into extinction like dinosaurs after an asteroid by digital books and e-readers. Libraries still enjoy enormous requests for and circulation of traditional books.
In fact, according to a recent article in “Scientific American” by David Pogue, digital preservation is still far too new to be proven as a reliable method of archiving over the long term. But while archiving of material is of high import to libraries, so much more is access to material. Digital books are less about denying readers the “smell and feel” of a book and more about providing the opportunity for reader to have book in hand in the shortest amount of time possible, and many times at a lower cost. Project Gutenberg, for example, provides digital access to numerous classics and public domain works, saving readers the additional cost of needing to purchase the item and libraries the cost of acquiring multiple copies of a work that is already freely available.
What can be very intimidating for a reader is the tangled undergrowth of e-reader brands and proprietary file formats for electronic books. One thing of which we can be certain: Things will keep changing. Readers who bought and fell in love with their Amazon Kindles, for example, were dismayed to then learn that the Kindle was not compatible with the ePub format that library e-books offered by distributors such as Overdrive were using. “You mean I bought this electronic reader and now I can’t check library books out on it?” Happily, however, that is also changing, and soon library patrons will be able to check out e-books on their Kindles.
As we cut our way together through the rapidly growing and evolving flora of the publishing world, it might be helpful for patrons to have some familiarity with the developments and challenges. Patrons now have more books than ever from which to choose, but the acquisition of those books might involve more now than consulting the card catalogue and pulling the volume off the shelf. Here are just a few of the myriad ways librarians can help patrons get book in hand:
1. The library purchases the book. Librarians love to hear requests from patrons and also endeavor to follow popular authors and titles to ensure to the best of their respective budgetary abilities that patrons have access to those books.
2. The library requests use of the book from another library. Not every library has every book, but libraries are generally very good about sharing materials back and forth for the greater good of all information seekers. This is called an Inter-Library Loan (or ILL), and is a request you would generally place with your local librarian. Often a small fee or donation is requested to help cover the cost of mailing or courier services.
3. The book is available as a digital download through your library (or another free service such as Project Gutenberg), as an e-book or audio book, and can be downloaded with your patron identification number to your computer, e-reader, or other handheld device. This is where devices and formatting can get tricky, and one of the best people I have found to help organize it is “The Digital Goddess” Kim Komando. Kim discusses e-books and e-readers frequently in her column, and she has a comprehensive chart of readers and their supported formats here. Some devices such as the Kindle, Nook and iPad download books wirelessly, and there is usually an open wireless connection at your local library. Some devices must be hardwired to a computer with an accompanying account, such as Sony. It’s our business as librarians to know how to help you with this process.
4. The book is Print on Demand (also known as POD or publish on demand). This is admittedly new territory for libraries, as it indicates a book that has been written and uploaded to a publisher/distributor [such as Amazon via CreateSpace] in a digital format but is not actually available in print until it is purchased. A book in this format is unlikely to be available to acquire via an Inter-Library Loan, and might not have been formatted for all e-readers nor purchased by Overdrive. It is not completely uncharted territory for libraries, however. California libraries are working together to provide POD services to their patrons with an Espresso Book Machine. Maine is working on the same thing. Expect to see further developments in this area as more emerging authors take advantage of self-publishing services.
Whatever your reading desire or question, one thing that has not changed is your librarian’s desire to help you. Access is what we do. In fact, we wrote the book on it - in all formats.
Lisa Neal Shaw is the Reference Librarian at Mark & Emily Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle, Maine. For questions about any of the above or any of our other services, please feel free to call (207) 764-2571 or e-mail email@example.com.