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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library kindles e-book collection

Love the convenience? Hold on. You'll still be waiting to check out popular titles.

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Samantha Smith was thrilled to find a new Kindle Fire when she unwrapped her gifts on Christmas Day. The 36-year-old makeup artist was even happier when she realized she could check out e-book titles from the library for free.

Now, Smith not only looks forward to downloading her favorite books from online stores, but also borrowing them virtually, which will save her a trip to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library system's brick-and-mortar locations.

"I imagine I will check out books from the library on my Kindle much more often than actually going to the library to check them out," Smith says. But when she visited the library's website, she found few titles that interested her. "The offerings lack a lot of recent titles and a wider selection of different types of books," she says, although she adds, "If you are a James Patterson fan, you will be happy."

If you're like Smith, and one of the more than 4 million others who purchased a Kindle in December or received one as a gift, there are a few things you should know about checking out e-books from the library. For one thing, the e-book selection isn't exactly free; the library, and thus tax payers, pay for the materials it loans out. What's more, as Smith points out, many titles will not be available, and you may have to get in line for the more popular books. Finally, like any library book, e-books have due dates, and will expire on your e-reader after three weeks. On the up side, you don't have to travel to a library to check them out or return them.

The Char-Meck library system itsn't the only one dealing with the issue of limited library e-books. On Christmas Day, The New York Times ran a story on the "tug of war" between libraries and publishers. According to the Times, publishers are "worried that people will click to borrow an e-book from a library rather than click to buy it." That's why "almost all major publishers in the United States now block libraries' access to the e-book form of either all of their titles or their most recently published ones," the Times' Randall Stross reports.

Linda Raymond is the head of materials management at the Charlotte library system, and she's feeling the pain. "I can only get a small fraction of the books on the best sellers lists," she says. One publisher, Harper Collins, even limits the number of checkouts of e-books to 26 before the library must re-purchase the title, which can make having e-books more expensive and more difficult to manage, Raymond says. That's why she has stopped buying many Harper Collins titles, even by in-demand authors such as Nicholas Sparks.

Popular e-book titles cost the library $25 to $38 per copy, $7 to $18 for older titles and as little as $4 for paperback romance novels, Raymond says. That's more than the library pays for physical books. "We get a pretty steep discount," she says, adding that the library is able to loan books, on average, about 100 times over a five-year period before reordering.

As it does with physical books, the library must purchase several copies of an e-book because of copyright considerations, which is why you may have to wait in line for a popular title. For example, if the library has three copies of an e-title, it is only legally able to loan out three copies at a time, even though the titles are in a digital format. "I know it seems silly," says Raymond, "but it's the publishers who are demanding that."

Kindle titles are neither the first, nor the only e-book offerings available in the Char-Meck system, says Jenifer Daniels, a library representative. The library has been offering a variety of e-books for "some time, and we grow our collection every year. Kindle was the biggest thing, because it's the e-reader of choice," she says, adding that it was the last company in the e-book world to hold out on libraries.

According to TechCrunch.com, "2011 was the best holiday ever for the Kindle family, as customers purchased over 1 million Kindle devices each week."

The Char-Meck library system currently offers about 1,600 e-titles; roughly 1,200 are formatted for the Kindle. About 700 of those are available for unlimited downloads. The rest have limited availability and the library may have to re-purchase them.

Amazon's Kindle created another challenge for the Charlotte library: The company caused a run on Kindle titles at the library when, in September, it announced its deal to offer books to libraries without first informing the librarians. On Sept. 19, the Charlotte library was told the company would be beta-testing its e-book offerings. Two days later, Kindle representatives announced on The Today Show that the titles were available at libraries.

The e-books are now so popular that the local system has been bombarded by requests via phone, in person and online, says Daniels. Demand was so high on Dec. 27 that the library's e-book distributor, OverDrive, warned that its websites were experiencing technical difficulties.

Readers don't have to purchase a Kindle to read the titles if they have a smart phone or a computer and Internet access. Amazon offers Kindle apps at no charge for iPhone, iPads, Android phones and personal computers with Internet access, allowing readers to access books from almost anywhere.

"I think it's wonderful and a great way for people who can't afford a lot of books to keep reading," says Smith, whose first experience with Kindle was with one of the free versions. Although Smith is happy about the Kindle Fire she got for Christmas, it doesn't mean she "can afford to drop $10 constantly for new books," she says, adding that "libraries are an important part of society, and offering e-books is just another way to reach out to people and get them engaged."

Raymond, who manages the library's physical and electronic inventory, says she believes more e-books will be available soon and that the prices will eventually drop. "The reality is that we create the readers that buy [the e-reader companies'] books," she says. "We want the titles, and we want them in the quantities that [the library patrons] do."

Smith agrees, though she also understands the publishers' need to make a profit. At the same time, she adds, "Publishers need to figure out a way to make it work for them without costing the libraries the constant renewal fees."

Check out the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library's e-book offerings www.cmlibrary.org/catalog/audiobookoptions.asp.

Image credit: Computer Weekly

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