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Digital readers are changing the traditional library system

Those wanting to borrow the e-book version of the bestseller, The Kite Runner,from the Vancouver Public Library will have to get on the waiting list fast – there are only nine copies available, and nearly 50 people are waiting to get their scrolling finger on that book.

That's how popular e-book downloads are. The Vancouver Public Library has had downloadable audio books and e-books for more than 10 years. In 2009, it started offering downloadable e-books specifically for electronic readers, but it wasn't until the spring of 2010, when the Kobo eReader and Apple's iPad were launched in Canada, that the number of downloads really began to soar. The number of e-books borrowed last month is ten times as high as it was a year ago.

"It's bringing new people to the library because they're thinking, we're a library, we have books, we must know how to help them with their e-book readers," said Christina de Castell, manager of online information and news at VPL. "The library hasn't seen before the same level of interest that e-books are clearly generating."

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The introduction of downloadable e-books for digital readers is changing the traditional library system. According to the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, $1.5-million out of a $92.5-million budget was spent last year on purchasing e-books for all libraries across Canada that serve a population of up to 100,000 people.

Libraries used to be seen as a place that holds shelves upon shelves of books and periodicals, and as a place to quietly read or study, but they are increasingly being viewed as a place that provides technical support and services, as well, Ms. Castell said.

Electronic-resource librarians at Vancouver's Central Library now spend several hours a day answering questions over the phone and through e-mail from people who want to learn how to borrow e-books and how to use their e-readers. Central Library currently has 41 Sony digital readers, Kobo eReaders and iPads, and offers drop-in workshops on how to use them. Unlike other libraries in West Vancouver, North Vancouver City District and Greater Victoria, the e-readers at Central Library cannot be lent out.

"It's something we're thinking about, but not planning to do right now," Ms. Castell said. "It's an expensive thing for libraries to do because vendors come out with new e-readers very frequently, so you have to keep replacing them and they get old quickly and become obsolete."

E-books have an advantage over the print variety in that patrons no longer have to make the trip to the library to pick up or drop off a book. The wait time for a book is also significantly shorter because an e-book is automatically returned after three weeks and can then go to the next person in line. So with e-books there are no late fees.

"It's revenue we won't receive, but we're saving as well because we wouldn't have to have trucks going from place to place moving books," Ms. Castell said, referring to the loss in late fees.

And while e-book downloads only make up 1 per cent of all lending right now, Ms. Castell said she expects that number to increase, albeit slowly. Most people are still borrowing print books because tablets are still relatively expensive. As prices drop, more people will buy them and borrow e-books, she said.

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"But we're really quite far away from being a virtual library," she said.

How to borrow an e-book

So you've got a new Kobo eReader or an iPad (or a Kindle, in which case you are out of luck because B.C. library's e-books are not compatible with the Kindle), and you're ready to borrow some e-books from the public library. Here is a how-to guide for borrowing an e-book.

Get a valid library card

Log on to the British Columbia Libraries website and in the "Device Resource Centre," download one of three free software packages that will allow your computer or mobile device to download the e-books.

Browse the eCatalogue for all e-books available in the province's libraries, check the e-books out, and transfer them to your digital reader.

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After you've checked an e-book out, it automatically returns itself after three weeks.

The next person on the waiting list will be notified by e-mail about its availability and can access the e-book right away. (That also means there is no such thing as overdue fees.) Vivian Luk

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