E-books, libraries and instant gratification

In its latest look at libraries in the digital age, the Pew Internet Project last week released a report on libraries, library users and e-books. The study confirms some of what I’ve been thinking about e-books lately and the continuing technological draw of instant gratification.

Perhaps the lead item in the study was that 58% of all library card holders don’t know if their library lends e-books. This includes 55 percent of those who say their library is “very important” to them and a somewhat stunning 48% of all owners of e-book reading devices. But what was significant to me is that the report indicates what I’ve thought is the biggest obstacle to e-book usage in libraries (aside from such things as two of the “big six” publishers not selling e-books to libraries or allowing any digital library lending of their titles). Some 52% of e-book borrowers say that at one point or another they discovered there was a waiting list to borrow a book and although not specifically quantified, many found the task cumbersome.

In checking the Siouxland Libraries web site Saturday, it lists 5,328 e-book titles. Of those, almost 40 percent were checked out and, I speculate, many of those had multiple holds. Granted, you may run into that problem with popular new print releases but can you imagine walking into a library where 40 percent of its books are checked out? Publisher lending restrictions and the pricing of licenses undoubtedly affect that, as does the explosion in demand for e-books. But how many times are you going to use the library as a source for books if you have difficulty getting the titles you want?

Compounding the situation is that even relatively savvy users like me find the process cumbersome. Take the Nook, for example. The platform used by most libraries is called OverDrive. In order to check out books, I first have to install both OverDrive and Adobe Digital Editions on a computer. Then, when I find an e-book I want to check out, I have to download it to my computer, open it with Adobe Digital Editions, connect my Nook to the computer and then transfer it to the Nook using Adobe Digital Editions. Quite simply, it’s a pain in the ass. Kindle is a bit better. Some titles can be downloaded directly (although none I’ve checked out could be) or I have to go to my Amazon account to transfer it to my Kindle.

And that’s where instant gratification kicks in. We want everything now and meeting that desire is easy in the digital world. On both my Nook and Kindle, when I buy a book at their websites, it is automatically transferred to the device. I don’t have to do anything. And what does that mean? Well, it’s part of the reason I’ve bought 12 books for those devices since May 1. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that more than half were $2.99 or less, often 99 cents.) I doubt I’ve bought that many print books all year. With the e-book, I can have and start reading the book now. I don’t have to monkey around with USB cables or other programs.

As for all readers, e-books mean a whole new world for libraries and their patrons. But the transition to the digital world has and will continue to have plenty of bumps and hurdles. Meanwhile, impetuous readers like me are ending up with the digital equivalent of huge “to be read” shelves on our e-readers.

It seems to me that anyone whose library consists of a Kindle lying on a table is some sort of bloodless nerd.

Penelope Lively

3 comments to E-books, libraries and instant gratification

  • D.E. Bishop

    My friend has been a librarian in Rapid City since 2004. We were just talking about e-books and libraries yesterday. She says in RC e-books are very popular, and they do have waiting lists for books. She also said they are going to purchase 4 Sony Readers that will be checked out for two week periods as a trial. She told me that e-books really seem to be the next direction libraries are headed.

    I am not a fan of the whole “instant gratification” thing. Some delays are not a bad thing. Builds patience and compassion.

  • I live in what might be the most populated county in Texas (Harris) and I use the county library system on a weekly basis. What you describe is exactly what I’ve run into here just north of Houston – if not even a bit worse. I find that the e-book section of the library is probably something like 80% checked out each time I look at it. Too, the cumbersome process you describe is another discouragement. I’ve come to prefer “ordering” books from the system and having them transferred to my local branch for pickup. That works much better, especially if I keep up with upcoming releases and order them before the library officially places them on the shelves. I do still much prefer printed books over e-books as far as the reading experience goes.

    • Tim

      I, too, “pre-order” at the library. In fact, two of the three books I current have on hold at the library are books that don’t come out until July. But because I looked when I first heard about them, I’m first on the list for both.