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Laman enters wild world of eBooks 

CALS expanding offerings into the digital world.

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Earlier this month, William F. Laman Library began lending books in digital form. Which means that patrons of the library who're willing to read a book on their computer or own digital readers or mobile devices can remotely download an eBook from Laman's online catalog.

Laman entered into the world of eBooks after a long reluctance to pick a horse in the race to control the format, according to executive director Jeff Baskin.

"It's very hard to see what the future is going to bring with this stuff. Everyone wants to control the medium, and not only the medium but how it's transmitted and how it's paid for. I think the industry is in turmoil over this."

To wit, major publishers MacMillan and Simon & Schuster refuse to sell eBooks to libraries, and last week HarperCollins began a new lease arrangement that requires libraries to re-purchase rights to a book after it's been downloaded 26 times. 

The Central Arkansas Library System, which has offered eBooks since October 2009, will think long and hard before purchasing a HarperCollins book, according to Carol Coffey, who oversees tech services for CALS.

Still, look for the library system to continue to expand its digital offerings, according to Susan Hill Gelé, assistant director for public relations at CALS.

"I think that any way that a patron enjoys a book is a good thing. We're embracing the eBook model."

CALS currently has 679 eBook titles in its collection and an additional 1,556 downloadable audiobook titles (it has duplicate copies of some titles as well). Of this year's books budget, the library has earmarked 8.2 percent, or $170,000, for downloadable books, which means CALS will be adding new titles each month.

Laman began its foray into eBooks with 390 earlier this month at an expense of $4,885.50, and already it has added new titles. Additionally, Laman offers 2,458 audio books for download. It's budgeted $34,000 to spend this year on downloadable audio books.

Both libraries distribute their digital books via OverDrive, which negotiates terms with book publishers and in turn offers libraries an array of titles from which to choose. So far, among their relatively small number of titles, CALS and Laman both have fairly broad selections. A few titles that caught my eye at Laman: Kevin Brockmeier's "The Illumination," Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres," Jay-Z's "Decoded" and Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." At CALS: Frank Bruni's "Born Round," Robin Becker's "Brains: A Zombie Memoir" and David Sedaris' "Naked."

To download a book, patrons are directed to either download Adobe Digital Editions or OverDrive Media Console, depending on what platform they're using. Most platforms, including Mac, PC, most mobile devices and most digital readers aside from Amazon's Kindle (which only reads proprietary material), support one of the free programs. Regardless of which program they use, patrons are also required to register for an Adobe ID.

The process is a bit cumbersome, but I managed to successfully figure it all out and download a book to my iPad in about 10 minutes.

Like physical books, the lending window imposed by both libraries varies, though usually it's either seven or 14 days. During the lending period, an eBook is not available for download by another patron until it's returned. Laman allows users to download four books at a time, while CALS allows its cardholders to download five. Frustratingly, those users who have to use the OverDrive Media Console can't return books early, though the tech blog TidBits suggests that, for iPad users at least, another free reader called BlueFire allows that option.

During the snow storms in January, CALS patrons downloaded 300 digital books, more than double the library's daily average from 2010. Baskin said Laman has had nearly 100 eBook downloads since the service launched two weeks ago. Those numbers aside, he remains cautious.

"We have to be careful because things are going to change very rapidly. And one of the interesting aspects of this whole thing is that the library is really buying nothing. We're licensing it to pass on to other people. It's not a physical object that you have to store. If we decide we're no longer going to take that service, we essentially lose those titles."

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