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E-books now a novelty at Virginia regional library network

Librarians have generally embraced the advent of e-books, with some exceptions.

Most agree that whether people are reading a book on a computer, a smartphone or an e-reader, they are reading.

Massanutten Regional Library, based in Harrisonburg, Va., which only began offering e-books for borrowing for the first time on Tuesday, holds mostly the same attitude as the majority.

A day after the library's e-book launch, Amazon.com -- purely by coincidence -- announced that Kindle e-books would be available for borrowing at11,000 U.S. libraries, including Massanutten Regional.

Many larger libraries across the nation have lent e-books for years, usually through a cooperative arrangement with OverDrive, which provides digitally-scanned books to U.S. public libraries and schools.

Massanutten Regional started its program this week by making 130 titles of new and popular e-books, which it purchased through OverDrive for $11 to $37 apiece, available to borrowers, said Library Director Lois Jones in a telephone interview. The library could add more e-books if demand warrants it, she added.

Jones said library patrons can now also borrow from a list of some 34,000 mostly classic e-books that have in the public domain for years.

The library's new e-book collection will probably attract new academic patrons given the concentration of computer-savvy users at four universities and colleges located in the most rural area of western Virginia. "Given the number of emails from various people asking for e-books over the last year, I think they'll be popular," she said.

At the same time, because Massanutten's seven library facilities serve such a diverse clientele, she doesn't feel e-books will lessen the demand for print books, including reference books.

"Beginning with Ben Franklin and first public library in Philadelphia, libraries have always adapted to the needs of the community," Jones said. "It's hard to imagine our buildings without books. It will be a while before that happens -- certainly not in my lifetime."

Massanutten Regional's seven library buildings are located mostly in two rural Virginia counties.

One of the libraries is located in Harrisonburg, Va., a city of 44,000, with four colleges, including James Madison University. Some 800 to 1,100 pass through the lobby of the Harrisonburg main library every day, a rate that makes Jones proud of the library's purpose.

It is a thriving regional library, serving families with small children, but also people without home computers who come into the physical library building to use a computer to conduct a job search or do some other reference work, Jones said.

The region also has a large number of migrant farm workers and political refugees from Eastern Europe who have depended on the library system to adapt to American life.

"We'll serve those people for a long time," Jones said, even as the e-book revolution slowly replaces print books.

Jones said she is generally pleased by the contract Massanutten struck with OverDrive, which can broken if the e-book check-out system fails, or isn't widely-used.

Massanutten is a non-profit library network that sells its services to the city and two counties, offering book borrowing to the public for free. As such, resources are tight and donations are always welcome, just as with other libraries nationwide, Jones added.

Massanutten Regional must pay OverDrive $10,000 a year for the e-book service, half for maintaining the e-book set-up, checkout and the related Web site, Jones explained. The other half goes for e-book purchases, with a $5,000 annual minimum.

Massanutten can purchase more e-books and services if it has the resources and demand.

While the OverDrive contract seems fair, Jones said she is concerned that e-books purchased from OverDrive sometimes cost more than heavily discounted print books.

"We get no discount, per se, on e-books, which cost us $11 to $37 apiece," Jones said. By contrast, a popular work of fiction in print might cost $25 at retail, but discounted by 40% for library use by national supplier Baker & Taylor, she said.

Some publishers are also still balking after years of discussion at how often an e-book can be borrowed at a library, with some publishers wanting to limit it to 26 times. By comparison, Jones said most of Massanutten's print books can be lent 100 times before the book becomes tattered and needs to taken off the shelves.

Instead of fretting about costs, however, Jones is seeking out new ways to get e-book users to donate to the library.

With print books, the library knows who has checked books by name and can easily follow up with an emailed solicitation. But with e-books, the borrower's name is not known by the library, which means Jones and her staff will probably be surveying them on the e-book site and seeking their donations there in novel ways.

If e-books do become popular at Massanutten Regional, Jones said it is unlikely they will greatly reduce the number of available print books, and certainly won't reduce the libraries' service to the diverse community.

"We'll be here a long time," she said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen , or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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