Libraries buy books. Sometimes they’re digital.

I’ve been visiting libraries with our E-Reader Sandbox program, introducing the devices and ways to use them. When we get to the section on checking out ebooks from the Ohio Ebook Project, I see lots of frowns when I describe the waiting lists for some titles. At the moment, for example, there are 163 patrons on the waiting list for The Help, even though the page shows that the library has 108 copies. “It’s just like with books,” someone says.

But They’re Digital

People know that the ownership model isn’t the only option when it comes to digital files. I don’t know much of anything about Netflix’s inner workings, but I know they don’t have to buy a “copy” of each TV episode I want to stream. They have licensing agreements in place. No one has to wait for me to finish watching Mr. Bean “eat” steak tartar to watch it themselves. I’m not interested in those licensing agreements (unless one ends and I lose access to content I like). As long as it just works, that’s all I need to know.

If patrons are confused about the way ebooks and libraries work in this regard, it’s not necessarily naiveté. Maybe they think of ebooks like text files that can be duplicated endlessly with a simple keystroke. But maybe they’re thinking of other access models. Count me among the crowds who would like ebook access to newly-released titles to be as open as works in the public domain hosted at Archive.org. How should I know that the library’s access doesn’t work like that?

Welcome to the Real World

That kind of access is a pipe dream, but ebook licensing is among a number of library functions that often take place invisibly. Sometimes invisibility is good. As a patron, I can ask for a book at the counter and it’s handed to me, or it’s put on hold and delivered to my branch, or the library considers purchasing it. Maybe Inter-Library Loan deserves its own episode of “Modern Marvels,” but on a daily basis, that process’s invisibility is fine with me.

Conflicts arise when people have expectations that aren’t met. “I have to wait behind 163 people? Wait, 164? I thought I could just download it now.” We can help people set their expectations by educating them before they’re disappointed. Tell your patrons how ebook lending works, and make that part of your pitch. When Kindle-format ebooks came to Overdrive, libraries quickly sent out the word on their websites and Facebook pages. “Now available” was true, but it only told part of the story.

Limited availability is bad news in some sense, but it’s also important news. When you read a Black Friday ad, it’s important to find the footnote that reads “Minimum 2 per store.” You’d probably prefer that number to be 500, but you’d definitely want to avoid waiting in line all night to be the thirtieth person to find the item’s out of stock.

Libraries buy books. Sometimes they’re digital.

Maybe this six-word summary doesn’t say enough to communicate the essential message, and maybe it doesn’t accurately describe your system. Find the simplest explanation you can. Use a footnote if necessary. Whatever explanation you use, you’ll need to use it a lot, in lots of locations: your website, your Facebook wall, your entryway hall. Find ways to keep the message fresh. You don’t want to bore people who have seen the message twenty times already, but you don’t want to miss the patron who’s finally coming to see what the ebook buzz is about.

Create your own documentation on the topic and keep linking to it. Don’t rely on Overdrive’s site to explain it. Help set patron expectations early and often, and they’ll be better able to move past the bad to the good news about ebook lending.

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