I’ve been watching the rise of the ebook with interest over the last few years. When you’ve made a work available to the various ereader formats, you can’t help but get sucked into the ereading universe. I could easily see the appeal of carrying many books around on one small device and, having read a few books on my computer, I could see why an e-ink screen would make for a more pleasurable experience (not to mention the ability to comfortably read in bed or in front of the fire).

This was the Christmas when I finally succumbed to the fascination and acquired an ereader. As I’ve already explained in this blog, I’m not a big buyer of fiction books for myself – I rely heavily on the public libraries for my reading habit. One of the big advantages of an ereader was going to be the huge amount of free reading material that’s available online, through Project Gutenberg and services like Feedbooks and Smashwords. I was also excited by the possibility of renting more up-to-date ebooks from the two public library systems to which I belong.

Well, I was excited until I started examining their stock. One of the libraries uses Overdrive, which is run co-operatively as part of a big investment in Ontario libraries. The other uses NetLibrary. Here’s what they offer, in terms of content:

Audio fiction Audio non-fiction Ebook fiction Ebook non-fiction Total
Overdrive 4,202 1,060 1,185 139 6,586
NetLibrary 1,950 2,903 4,953

I don’t know how many books the physical libraries hold, but according to a 1990s paper by Moya K. Mason, the median number in Ontario libraries is around 35,000 books. So there’s a long way to go before the number of ebooks rivals the number of physical items in our libraries.

UPDATE: I’ve done a bit more digging and have discovered that the smaller of my two local libraries (the Overdrive library) holds 23,000 items, while the bigger library (the one that uses NetLibrary) holds 80,000. So it’s quite a significant difference in percentage terms, with the equivalent of 27% of the stock of the small library available in ebook form, but only 6% of the larger one.

Now, if I did a lot of driving, then the audio books would be great. But I don’t, and it’s quicker to read than it is to hear a book. The number of items of interest to me in these collections is therefore reduced even further (but obviously that will be different for many other people, that I’m happy to accept). It’s early days, still, and I hope that these numbers will improve over the coming months and years. I’ve provided them here as a benchmark for future comparisons.

I’d like to make a few observations on the usability of these services. Of the two, I found Overdrive more intuitive to navigate. As you can see from the table, I couldn’t easily separate non-fiction from fiction titles in NetLibrary. This is fairly fundamental – in most public libraries there’s a clear physical division between the two. But in NetLibrary I wasn’t able to simply divide up the stock in this way to get an estimate of the number of fiction and non-fiction titles. Unless you know what you’re looking for, NetLibrary isn’t easy to navigate, generally. Overdrive was definitely superior in this respect, with books browsable by popularity, as well as by title, author and category.

In Overdrive, I quickly found three books that I’ve been wanting to read. None of them were instantly available and there is a limit to the number of books that I can ask to reserve (three). In each case, there are between 12 and 23 people ahead of me in line. I’ve no idea what that means, in practical terms. There is a standard loan period of two weeks (this is the usual loan period for the equivalent real-world library, too), which can be altered to three weeks in the Overdrive system. But I don’t know if that means I’ll have to wait six to 12 months for the books I’d like, or if the system has more than one licence for each of those books, which would mean that they should become available sooner. Time will tell (and these physical restrictions seem bizarre, frankly, when we’re talking about a few kilobytes of data, not an actual book). At least there were some books that I knew I’d want to read. I didn’t find any in the NetLibrary collection (it doesn’t have copies of Stieg Larsson’s books?!), even when searching for the three books I’d ordered from Overdrive.

By means of experiment, I’ve also placed a hold on one of the ebooks I’ve ordered in printed book form from the library. It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s the ebook or the dead-tree version that arrives first.

I don’t want to see our public libraries closing, and I think that if they get their act together in relation to ebooks, then they’ll become relevant to a whole section of society that simply sees libraries as irrelevant to their current way of life. In a world where many ereaders allow users to buy the book they want instantly from the Internet, where is the appeal of waiting for a long, artificially-created line of people to download a digital file before you can (apart from the financial one)? And if the file isn’t even there in the first place, then they won’t take the time to look for one, next time. I know it’s early days, but this is key to the future success of libraries. It’s a chance they can’t afford to miss.