This was originally just a short post to update the numbers of books available through our library ebook service here in Ontario. Then it grew a bit.

The last (approximately) six months have shown another big increase in the ebook fiction and non-fiction categories, with both nearly doubling.

Audio fiction Audio non-fiction Ebook fiction Ebook non-fiction Total
December 2010 4,202 1,060 1,185 139 6,586
February 2011 4,534 1,089 3,297 505 9,425
August 2011 5,197 1,139 5,773 880 12,989
January 2012 6,271 1,208 11,560 1,543 20,582

I’d be really interested to see some usage statistics on how many patrons are actually downloading books from these electronic library services. I imagine they’d show a similar steady increase.

UPDATE: Sometimes it’s useful to be friendly with a librarian. I chatted with the CEO of one of my local libraries about ebooks and Overdrive yesterday. This is a library in a small town, serving a population of only 1,800 people. The librarian was happy to share some of the statistics for use of OverDrive materials with me.

The results are interesting. I was expecting to see a steady growth in take-up by patrons of the OverDrive option for checking out books over the course of 2011. The figures don’t really support that expectation.

New users of library ebook system, 2011

There’s the expected post-Christmas spike in January and December, but the graph doesn’t reflect a rapid take-up of ebook borrowing in this particular library. 28 new readers in total.

The usage of OverDrive shows the sort of growth I would have expected:

Items borrowed through OverDrive

But the numbers involved are still very low: a total of only 249 items for the whole of 2011.

It’s very hard to measure the value of access to OverDrive for a small library. It costs around 10% of the library’s acquisition budget to provide patrons with access to the service. But with only around 30 active borrowers, it seems only to be being used by less than 2% of the library’s potential user population. For people like me who don’t live close to a library and who have the tools and skills to use it, the ability to download books from service is greatly appreciated. But with budgets getting increasingly tight for libraries, the cost is not all that easy to justify. It doesn’t help that there is no alternative to the OverDrive system: there isn’t any competing service which might help to drive down the price.

The other aspect which I found interesting from our library’s statistics was the demand for items in OverDrive. The graph below shows the number of unique individuals who borrowed items from that one library in each month of 2011. It ranges from two to nine people.

Patrons with items checked out

Compare that graph with the one below, which shows how many unique individuals were waiting for items in each month. This never dropped below four and got as high as 13 in January 2011. The access the library pays for is not unique access to materials for our library: we are sharing that access with other libraries all over Southern Ontario. Consequently, users of each of the libraries in this system are competing with each other for library materials in a way which would be much less likely to happen in real libraries. More than once, I’ve discovered that a popular item in OverDrive has 68 people waiting for it, while the physical copy is there in my local library, on the shelf.

People waiting for items

So now I’m torn. As a tech-savvy user of libraries, I adore being able to get hold of ebooks (relatively) easily. But I know that many other library users find the process of downloading books through OverDrive to be too complicated to attempt. Librarians are rightly worried about the effect of providing this access on their book budgets and on their services in general.

I think what I’d like to see is the ability for small libraries to build their own ebook collections, rather than having to use a centralised service like OverDrive. I’d also like to see those collections contain items of local interest and by local authors: materials that are never going to be picked up by the big publishers but which are significant to the library’s immediate community. It bothers me that the librarians’ skills of selecting, curating and sharing materials are being bypassed by centralised, standardised services which don’t allow for any variation and which don’t necessarily provide the best service for the public (those waiting times for ematerials are only going to grow as more people use the service).