On a typical day, public libraries would encourage you to stop by and browse its aisles, peruse its books, and maybe even borrow a few favorites from the circulation desk. But these are not typical times.
Nowadays with coronavirus, public libraries look more like meal distributors, emergency childcare centers, makeshift homeless shelters, and suppliers of 3D-printed personal protection equipment (PPE). But while 98 percent of library systems have closed their doors to the public outside of these essential services, many continue to offer — and even expand — ebook and digital audiobook selections for remote access.
Among the 2,500 library systems the Public Library Association surveyed over the last week of March, 74 percent have expanded their online ebook and audio streaming services. Part of that, some libraries told Mashable, is due to the increase in demand since states issued shelter-in-place orders in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Still, the number and diversity of digital offerings vary from metropolitan to rural libraries and remain limited relative to physical materials — but more on that later. The best thing you can do now is put your name on the waiting list (I know, I know) for all the free ebooks and digital audiobooks you want.
Good news: We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about digital lending so you can get the darn thing done already.
Different libraries offer different digital selections, but most deliver them through the same method: cross-device apps.
The first thing you should do is browse your library’s ebook catalog on its website — or, if you live in a more rural, resource-strapped area, your regional public ebook consortium. Search for the ebook you want, and you’ll see what apps they use to deliver the material on its description page. Some libraries will offer materials via multiple apps — compare your options.
Most apps are compatible with mobile systems like iOS and Android, but some others work also on Kindles and with operating systems like MacOS and Windows. App features will depend from one operating platform to another, so consider your needs: Do you need to download materials for offline reading? Content restriction for your little one? Research the different apps your library partners with to optimize your user experience.
Most of the time, you’ll have the option to borrow or reserve digital materials from either the library’s website or the app they use to distribute things. If all that sounds too complicated, try downloading OverDrive or its mobile-focused sister app, Libby, to start. OverDrive is a popular digital reading platform with over 45,000 partners, so there’s a good chance you’ll find selections from your local library there.
You can sign up for an OverDrive or Libby account by connecting your library card to the app. Then, select your local library manually or let the app do it for you via location sharing. From there on, it’s a one-stop service for browsing and borrowing digital materials. Sift through your local selection of ebooks and digital audiobooks however you’d like: by genre, popularity, new releases, collections and searches. Axis360, an app by the old-timey book distributor Baker & Taylor, is also a popular choice.
If you’re looking for a platform built by libraries forlibraries, then look no further than SimplyE, an app developed by the New York Public Library. It functions pretty much just like OverDrive and Libby, except you’re free to browse selections from any of its approximately 1000 partner libraries before entering your library card information. But the fact that it’s a public, library-developed app comes with some relative advantages, too.
“It still gets you access to the OverDrive books, the Baker & Taylor books, or any other of the books [by other distributors], but it’s just a single app. One, it means you don’t have to toggle between different platforms to find the book,” NYPL president Tony Marx told Mashable. “Second is, having a library app means that the library has a direct relationship with its patrons, that it can ensure the privacy of its patrons, that it can make sure that we are spending resources to maximize learning rather than to maximize profit.”
Unfortunately, you’ll need internet access to browse ebooks and digital audiobooks. But once you download the material to your app, you’ll be able to read or listen to them offline until it’s due.
But that only makes access a little less restraining. Even in New York City, more than 1.5 millionpeople don’t have internet connectivity at home or on a mobile device, Marx said.
“That is shocking,” he added. “Which is why we got into the business of lending wifi hotspots … in the hopes that we would not only serve those families but also encourage some serious policy moves to solve the digital divide problem.”
And that’s the silver-lining: Eighty percent of libraries continue to provide wireless broadband access even with their doors closed, and 12 percent of them have either added or expanded this service since the pandemic began. A smaller percentage of them have also been expanding the range of their public wifi, lending out portable wifi, or using their bookmobiles as internet access points.
With the digital divide in mind, some libraries are also able to offer curbside service for physical books at this time.
“We serve about 34,000 people … [and] we’re fairly rural and blue-collar — lots of car industry here because we’re close to the GM plant, the Nissan plant, and they’re building a new Toyota monster plant,” Jennifer Pearson, president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries and director of the Marshall County Memorial Library in Tennessee, told Mashable. “I would say in smaller and rural areas, our population in general aren’t going to be quite as tech savvy and an alpha adopter of things.”
If you have limited internet access or find digital books difficult to use, give your library a call to see whether they offer any of these services. Librarians are dedicated to public service; so chances are, they’ll help you come up with a solution. Maybe that means downloading the materials using public wifi from right outside your library — by the door, or in the parking lot — or making special arrangements to check out a physical book.
You can get a digital card online, if your library offers it. For the New York Public Library, sign-ups for library cards on SimplyE has increased more than 860 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, Marx said.
OverDrive also offers Instant Digital Cards (IDC) for library partners who enable that option for their patrons, director of marketing David Burleigh told Mashable. If your library’s on the list, you can sign up for it with the OverDrive or Libby app.
When you use Libby for the first time, the app will offer you the option to sign up for an IDC if your library offers it. OverDrive users will also get a pop-up invitation to sign up for an IDC when they’re browsing the digital collection of a participating library without a login.
To sign up for an IDC, you'll have to provide your name and phone number to OverDrive or Libby. OverDrive then uses a third-party service called Cognito to look up your recent address and to match your zip code with a library in your service area. Participating libraries will in turn use your number, name and address to verify your eligibility.
But IDCs — along with most digital library cards offered by the libraries themselves — usually limit users to digital collections. You’ll be able to access digital materials until your IDC expires, but you’ll need to sign up for a full-access physical library card in person if you want to lend out physical materials when libraries re-open.
If those aren’t options for you, give your library a call and see what they can do. For example, Marshall County Memorial Library will allow patrons to call ahead of time to register for a library card and complete the process via a quick curbside service, Pearson said.
You got your library card, your eReader, so all you have to do is find the ebook or digital audiobook you want, right? That would be ideal; but unfortunately, most libraries have lower inventory and longer wait times for digital material compared to physical materials because they're costly. This is especially true for smaller and rural libraries, and it’s especially true right now as the pandemic causes a surge in demand.
The cost for ebooks and digital audiobooks vary from publisher to publisher and from title to title, of course. But overall, they are much more expensive for libraries than for everyday consumers. For a library, a New York Times bestseller costs around $50 to $60 on average, compared to the $14-or-so for which it's retailed to consumers, according to Alan Inouye, senior director of public policy and government relations at the American Library Association.
But that’s not it: Libraries don’t get these digital materials in perpetuity. The majority of time, those $50 or $60 go toward licensing deals that require renewals on a biennial or per-number-of-borrow basis.
It’s a challenge unique to digital materials, Inouye said, because publishers are able to monopolize how those materials are distributed to library patrons through digital media distributors like OverDrive. (For comparison, if a publisher gouges physical book prices for libraries, Inouye said libraries can simply send their clerks to a commercial bookstore and get them at retail price.)
While major libraries like NYPL are able to offer more than 300,000 ebooks, digital audiobooks and movies (though, it still shies in comparison to the 7.5 million-plus physical offerings they have), expanding digital collections can often be challenging for small and rural libraries, Pearson said.
“They’re prohibitively expensive for small libraries, in a lot of cases” Pearson said. “So small libraries like mine rely on a consortium … [that] buy ebooks on behalf of the Public Library.”
But these regional consortiums, like large library systems, often share inventory and operate within the same licensing deals. And that sometimes leads to longer wait times, too.
“If you're looking for a specific book to read, and it's a new book and you want the ebook, you're likely to be on hold for several months because we can't afford to buy as many copies,” Pearson said. “So that's an issue across the board for libraries and library patrons.”
Inouye told Mashable some publishers are halving the cost of digital materials for a shorter licensing period in response to the pandemic. But the increase in digital material demand since the beginning of the crisis have also added to the challenge.
At Overdrive, circulation in April has increased by 45 percent compared to the same time last year, according to Burleigh. For NYPL, not only has the number of new eBooks users doubled, the use of digital research books have also increased for more than 550 percent, Marx said.
Still, Pearson said you’ll do “alright” if you’re not particular about what you might want to read next. That is, if you just want to browse and keep an open mind.
Libraries are working hard to expand their e-collections as well as access to them. But Marx said one of the biggest challenges remains how and whether libraries will be able to digitize books that are in copyright, but no longer in print or in sales.
“If you're lucky enough to live by one of the half dozen great libraries in the world, you can get it. But otherwise, those books are basically dead to the world, and that may even be the majority of books — so much of the 20th century,” Marx said. “We have to find a way to bring those books back to life, to both benefit the public and to benefit the authors who are also not happy that their books have died.”
Practically, it can be. But there’s a good reason to borrow from libraries instead.
A major reason digital materials are so expensive to libraries — and it’s why they're struggling to expand free e-collections for the public — has to do with copyright challenges unique to digital intellectual property, Burleigh said.
“Publishers certainly want to protect their investments and the intellectual property of their copyrighted material for their authors and agents,” he said. That’s true with physical books, too; but advancements in media technology have made copyright infringement all the more prevalent.
WATCH: Public libraries found to be more important than ever in current internet era
For example, Marx pointed to the 2005 class action lawsuit, Authors Guild et al. v. Google, in which publishers and authors alike accused Google of a “massive copyright infringement” as it created digital copies of copyrighted books in an attempt to create a database for books and to digitize library books. (The Supreme Court ultimately declined to review the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who said Google's practice for profit-making was fair use.)
Resources like the National Emergency Library — a temporary collection which the Internet Archive launched in support of emergency remote teaching and research during the pandemic — while convenient and well-intended, raises the same concern for right holders.
Authors and publishers have both come out to accuse the library of piracy. And in June, a group of publishers — Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, John Wiley & Sons, and Penguin Random House — officially filed a lawsuit against the Internet Archive, accusing it of "willful mass copyright infringement.”
Accessing copyrighted materials illegally will help publishers to continue justifying high costs for libraries, which in turn raises the barrier for public access. And it’s a tension with a long history that traces back to online academic databases in the 80s, Inouye said.
But copyright laws have yet to adapt to the needs of the digital age. (The last two major ones were legislated in 1976 and 1909.) Whereas the “right of first sale” affords libraries the right to lend and share copies of physical books they purchase without restrictions from publishers, no such doctrine exists for their electronic counterparts.
But policy advocates are trying to bring light to the issue as ebooks and audiobooks continue to gain traction and popularity from the public. The ALA, for one, has submitted formal comments to the House Judiciary Committee as they continue to investigate antitrust behaviors and competition in the digital market. Library advocates, too, have been lobbying for state legislations that “would require publishers who offer ebooks to the consumer market to extend licenses to libraries within the state without discrimination.”
“Libraries have been buying print books for centuries, so there aren’t so many policy controversies there,” Inouye said. “It’s just that with the new thing, like ebooks, the rules are evolving, and the legal framework is still immature. So there are a lot more questions and problems that require attention.”
UPDATE: June 2, 2020, 2:30 p.m. EST Updated to include a lawsuit filed on the same day, in which a group of publishers accuses Internet Archive of intellectual property infringement.