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Pelham's Virtual Library

Beyond the library's stacks and shelves, there's another kind of book collection that is proving increasingly popular with library users.

I’ve just spent an enjoyable hour browsing through a library, putting a couple of titles on hold and starting to read a book I checked out about a little-known episode in World War II.

I haven’t left home.

I’ve been exploring the digital collections of the Westchester Library System, the consortium of 38 public libraries in the county, including the Town of Pelham Public Library.

I’ve long used the WLS system to order books—real, physical objects, that is—from libraries all across the county that are then delivered to the Pelham library, where I pick them up and return them.

That alone has seemed little short of a miraculous service, a way to extend the reach of a Pelham library cardholder far beyond the library’s bookshelves.

But I haven’t really been aware of the system’s digital collections of downloadable e- books and audio books.

I say that with some embarrassment. I’m a member of the library’s board of trustees. But I’ve been a holdout when it comes to e-books. I haven’t kindled a passion for a Kindle or retired to a cozy nook with a Nook.

Recently, however, Rob Caluori, WLS’ information technology manager, gave a to some of the board members about the WLS digital collection, which now amounts to about 7,000 copies of roughly 6,000 unique titles.

A wide assortment of material, from new bestsellers to classics, from business and career titles to animated, talking books for children, is available in a variety of formats. E-books can be downloaded to be read on a computer or most digital readers, and audiobooks can be played on iPods and other devices.

The exception to the lineup of compatible devices is a big one—Amazon’s Kindle, which uses Amazon’s own file format.

Even so, digital titles are flying off WLS’ shelves, or rather servers. Mirroring the exploding popularity of e-books in the marketplace—where they’ve overtaken sales of traditional books in some cases—usage of digital titles soared by more than 50 percent last year, Caluori said.

To check out the offerings, I went to the WLS website and clicked on the “digital collections” tab. From there, I downloaded the Adobe digital reader so I could read e-books on my laptop.

The system offers several different digital services. Among them, OverDrive contains a wide variety of popular titles and categories, while NetLibrary is more concentrated on classic literature, language programs, and business and career books. TumbleBooks is a collection of animated titles and other material for the youngest readers.

Audiobooks have proven to be the most sought-after format so far in the digital collection, accounting for more than half of the titles and 60 percent of the checkouts last year.

Caluori said the biggest complaint about the collection is the wait for materials. The growing popularity of e-books has caused a backlog of holds on many titles.

That may seem odd at first. If a book is digital, why can’t it be duplicated instantly? But publishers sell their e-books to libraries, or services such as OverDrive, with the restriction that each copy can only be checked out to one person at a time.

Most publishers allow for unlimited serial checkouts of each copy, but HarperCollins recently raised hackles among librarians by announcing that it would restrict its e-titles to only 26 checkouts. That’s led to concerns that other publishers will follow suit.

In the meantime, there is already a considerable waiting list at WLS. When I checked, four people were waiting to read the e-book version of David Brooks’ new book, “The Social Animal.”  

That’s fairly typical of the titles I encountered, but Steig Larsson’s “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” had 45 people lined up to check it out. The waiting list for Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” was the digital equivalent of a line that stretches out to the street; 65 people are willing to wait their turn to read her account of an American airman’s stoicism in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.

Turning to the European theater of the war, I found “Red Orchestra,” Anne Nelson’s account of a little-known group of Nazi resisters. It downloaded to my computer so quickly that at first I thought something had gone wrong.

Now it’s on my laptop for the next seven days. Despite the waiting lists, you can’t beat the price. And there’s another nice feature that benefits both reader and library.

At the end of seven days, the book disappears from your computer. No more overdue fines. And the next person in line doesn’t have to wait for an absent-minded borrower to return the book to the library.

Not that I’ve ever done that, mind you.

Elizabeth August 19, 2011 at 03:31 AM
I still prefer to check out a real book from the library. I see the excitement of the new technology and what it has to offer, but nothing can replace the feel of the book in one's hands and the excitement of uncovering what's in the next page, or the smell of the book. I cannot help but feel regret that all the Nooks and Kindles are trying to take control over the real authentic books. Imagine what would life be without real books. Some kind of futuristic nightmare . Thank you but ill keep my books.

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