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Thursday, August 9, 2012

On Borrowing Digital Books From the Library


I had resisted the lure of electronic books for as long as I could. But this year I received an e-reader for Mother's Day. I'm happy - but my wallet isn't.

As I quickly learned, e-readers offer instant gratification. Read an intriguing review in The New York Times Book Review on Sunday? A click or two, and there it is on your reader. I recalled a snippet on the radio about “Escape From Camp 14,” about a boy raised in the North Korean gulag. That night, I downloaded it, and devoured it.

The downside, however, is the cumulative cost. E-books may cost less than physical ones, but the spending quickly mounts when you're an avid reader and you download volumes at will. When I got my credit card bill for my Barnes & Noble account, which feeds my Nook reader, it gave me pause - and got me wondering about borrowing e-books from my library.

I found that borrowing digital books isn't as easy as it should be. A study relea sed in June from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 12 percent of adults who read e-books have borrowed from a library. But more than half of e-book borrowers from libraries reported that the library did not carry a book they wanted, and half said that at some point they discovered there was a waiting list to borrow the book.

My experience at my local library mirrors those findings. I logged onto the Web site (using my card number and PIN, established when I got the card). Then I clicked on a tab that said “Download audio books and e-books.” To my disappointment, I wasn't able to download books wirelessly to my Nook, as I do when buying books online. Instead, I was directed to download Adobe's e-reader software, Digital Editions, to my laptop. This took a few minutes and wasn't entirely intuitive, but it has to be done only once.

After downloading the Adobe software, I had to download the e-book to my laptop first , and then transfer it - with a USB cable - to my Nook. (Wireless library downloads are possible with other types of readers, like the Kindle from Amazon, although some publishers still require a transfer with a USB cable anyway, according to an article in The Times that offers helpful tips for navigating e-borrowing.

All a bit of an annoyance. But one I could brush off, if the reward was a meaty selection of e-books, gratis. Unfortunately, the menu is limited. Many publishers are nervous that borrowing e-books from libraries is too easy and will cut into digital sales, so they refuse to sell them to libraries, or restrict the number of times a digital book can be loaned.

I searched for a couple of books that I'd been wanting to read, but hadn't gotten around to yet. One of them - “Townie: A Memoir” by Andre Dubus III - was available only in audio book format. And Anne Patchett's novel “State of Wonder” wasn't available in any electronic format. Sigh.

I stopped searching and browsed available books instead, which yielded some interesting options. I downloaded “Open City” by Teju Cole, a novel about a Nigerian psychiatry student in New York. It took a couple of clicks, and then it appeared, magically, on my Nook.

But because I had wanted to read the other books first, I ended up obtaining them elsewhere. (I actually borrowed a hardcover version of “Townie” from the library). But in the time I was reading the other books, the e-library book on my Nook had disappeared - or, rather, it was unavailable because my checkout period expired.

So much for free, easy reading. For my budget's sake, I can only hope that publishers and libraries find a way to cooperate soon on making electronic books more readily available for borrowing.

Do you borrow electronic books from your library? How's the selection? What was your experience?