Guest blog: ebooks – the Luton experience.

Today’s guest blog post comes from Fiona Marriott, Principal Librarian at Luton Cultural Services Trust.

Being one of the first to launch a new service is always a challenge and it means that you have few people to compare with or ask advice. It can be more expensive than “waiting and seeing” and it’s easy to make mistakes.

It is almost two years since we launched our ebook project in Luton, and we are still learning – about new formats, downloading problems, Ereaders, staff training and marketing the service. The only thing that we knew from the start was that usage would grow and the technology would change, constantly!

In Luton we have a culture of using new technology, to improve customer services and make best use of our resources. We offer remote online access to newspapers, the driving theory test and the UK Citizenship Test, as well as a new language-learning package. Luton is a commuter town, and there are many people who do not have time to visit the library, so our online services help us to reach an audience who might not otherwise use libraries.

We had previous experience of running a downloadable service in 2006, when we were involved in a project providing downloadable audiobooks to approximately 50 customers.  The project proved that downloading could be popular and relatively easy for customers to do. When we were approached in Summer 2008 by Overdrive, an American company, we were planning for the closure of the central library for a complete refurbishment. We saw the introduction of ebooks/ e-audiobooks as a way of helping our customers cope with the closure period.

Having seen the online demonstration, we were convinced that Overdrive had the audiobook service we had been looking for. We knew that they offered ebooks, but we were concerned that the market was not sufficiently developed, so we agreed to only stock downloadable audiobooks and began work to create our audiobook website. In October 2008 I attended a conference run by Overdrive and saw the Sony Ereader for the first time. Once I had the chance to handle it, see the quality of the text and the ease of use, I became convinced that we should launch our service with both audiobooks and ebooks. I discussed with colleagues what ebooks we thought we might stock, then created a selection for the website which was ready to launch by January 2009.

So how does it work? On the website http://lutonlibraries.lib.overdrive.com – there is a tutorial that shows how to download. Customers can search for books, but to download they need to log on using their library card number and PIN number. The first time they use the service, they need to download some software, the Overdrive Media Console for audiobooks, and Adobe Digital Editions for ebooks. Once this is done the customer can download up to 10 books at a time and can choose their loan period, from 7, 14 or 21 days. The book is downloaded with a licence, which expires at the end of this period and “returns” the book to the library, so that they are available for other customers.

We only have one copy of most books, but customers can join a waiting list and are notified when the book is returned. They can also keep a “wish list” of books they would like to borrow in the future. Customers can rate books they have borrowed (up to 5 stars) and can use Twitter, Facebook or email to share their book choices with their friends.

Promoting such a new and innovative service is difficult, as you don’t have a physical “object” to display in libraries. We are unable to download from the website in libraries, as the firewall prevents any downloading by customers. To get round this, we now have a laptop with wi-fi Internet access and can do “taster sessions” for customers.

One of the strangest aspects of this service is that you don’t really get to know your customers, as they are downloading from home, and the borrower details are scrambled to protect their identity online. In choosing new books, we have to look at what customers are downloading, what is most popular. We have a good balance of books for children, teenagers and adults, but we are still trying to understand how the website will develop in the future.

Offering ebooks is not a cheap service, but it has some benefits:

  • The books are always returned on time
  • The books are never damaged, or lost
  • The books don’t wear out and need replacing.

So, almost two years in, what have we learned? Customers are willing to try a wide range of books, especially as the service is free. Customers are downloading ebooks and e-audiobooks in one session, so they are keen to experiment. They are also more likely to download medical and self-help books, which they might be too embarrassed to borrow from a library. Most importantly, just like a “real library” there is no single ebook customer, they could be young, old, a student or a housewife.

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

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