Rachel Martin is a librarian in Technical and Collection Services at the Seattle Public Library; she coordinates the OverDrive digital catalog for the library. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about ebooks, libraries, and the OverDrive catalog, which allows libraries to lend ebooks, audiobook mp3s, and other digital media. You can check out the OverDrive collection at the Seattle Public Library here.

Chamber Four: Not all libraries are offering ebooks. How did SPL hear about OverDrive and decide to use it?

Rachel Martin: We were aware of OverDrive early on as they began promoting the service to public libraries. We were excited to offer a service to our users that provided both ebooks and digital audiobooks.

C4: Does the OverDrive service cost money? Does the library pay by ebook copy you make available, or all-inclusively for the service itself?

RM: Libraries pay a one-time upfront fee to get a customized website and to set up the service and then we pay a quarterly hosting and maintenance fee. We purchase each copy of a book that we make available to our patrons.

C4: What are the future plans for this? Will there be expansion in terms of number of copies allowed out at a time? How about number of titles offered?

RM: The Library purchases titles on a regular basis. We began the service in 2005 with approximately 1,500 ebook and digital audiobook titles and we currently offer about 30,000 titles (ebooks, digital audiobooks, music and video). In 2005 library patrons could have 10 items checked out at a time. Now that the collection is larger patrons can check out 20 items at a time.

OverDrive regularly enhances the service. For example, we recently implemented a feature where Library users can choose their own checkout period instead of the 3 week default checkout. So for Library users who know they will be done with an item in less than a week, they can choose a 1 week checkout period instead of the default 3 weeks. This will allow the item to become available more quickly for someone else and it will allow that user to check out more items.

C4: I’ve noticed in my own use of the OverDrive system that there don’t seem to be long waits for ebooks. How many library patrons are using the system for ebooks? How long is the average wait as compared to their paper counterparts? Have you bought multiple copies of any ebooks? And how has this changed since the OverDrive system’s inception in 2005?

RM: Use of the digital downloadable collection has steadily increased since it was introduced in 2005. In 2008, downloadable media circulation increased 59% from the previous year. The Library maintains the same copy to holds ratio for all formats. When more than 5 patrons are on the wait list for each copy, additional copies are added to maintain this ratio.

C4: Do publishers release mostly new books as ebooks for overdrive? Are there any plans to release older books as ebooks?

RM: There is a mixture of new releases, classics and older mid-list titles available from a variety of publisher and for all age ranges.

C4: Does OverDrive do the legwork? i.e. do they make the contracts with publishers, decide which books go into the database, etc? To what extent is the library involved in the books available in their ebook catalog? How does this process differ from the way the library traditionally acquires books?

RM: The process is actually very similar in that Libraries typically work with third party book vendors instead of publishers to select and purchase titles. OverDrive and the publishers negotiate licensing agreements and decide which titles will be available. Libraries work with OverDrive to purchase the titles and offer the service.

C4: There have been some problems lately with libraries loaning out ereader devices, especially Kindles. Does SPL offer or plan to offer loans of ereaders like the Kindles?

RM: At this time, the Library does not have plans to lend e-readers.  We are monitoring the e-reader market and  the application of e-readers in public libraries.

C4: Can someone without a Seattle address get a library card in order to use the online collection?

RM: Many libraries offer the OverDrive service. Go here to see which libraries closest to you offer OverDrive.

Anyone who lives, works or owns property within the Library’s free service areas qualifies for free Library service (or the spouse or underage dependent of someone who does). You also can get a free card if you go to school in the service areas. Free service areas include: All areas of the cities of Seattle and Bothell, most of King County, except: City of Enumclaw, City of Renton, Yarrow Point and Hunts Point. You also qualify if you have a Library card issued by: Everett Public Library, Puyallup Public Library, Sno-Isle Libraries or Timberland Regional Library. The Seattle Public Library does offer people who live in Washington State, but who do not qualify for free service in other ways, a Non-Resident card for a yearly fee. See this page for more information.

C4: How do you feel about libraries offering ebooks? As a librarian, I would guess you have a soft spot for the physicality of paper books, but the advantages of ebooks (like portability, ease and thoroughness of archiving, and the potential of future cross-platform annotation) are pretty tempting, aren’t they?

RM: As a Library, we strive to provide access to ideas and information in the format most appropriate and relevant to the user. For any given title we might have it in print, large print, ebook, audiobook, digital audiobook, one of many world languages, DVD, or graphic novel.

C4: How would you define the traditional purpose of libraries? How do you see ebooks and the digitization of information fitting into that purpose?

RM: I would refer to the Library’s Mission Statement. Ebooks, digitized information and online services support the Library’s mission in a variety of ways. Ebooks are a responsive service. Ebooks are available any time of day or night and the user doesn’t even have to leave their house to access. Ebooks inform, enrich and empower, and extend the boundaries of the Library.

C4: Is a library necessarily a building? If not, what would it look like?

RM: The Seattle Public Library’s virtual services are our busiest “branch library.” Many people use the Library’s online databases, watch Tumblebooks or Bookflix (online book/video services for children), listen to podcasts of a library program, and check out ebooks, digital audiobooks, video or music CDs from OverDrive.