The future of borrowed time

SUE Anderson, 68, of Boronia, has a Kobo and has been borrowing e-books from Eastern Regional Libraries for the past six months.

She's one of the 2391 members across the Knox, Maroondah and Yarra Ranges councils signed up for the service, which launched a year ago with 6738 e-books from global e-book distributor OverDrive.

Eastern Regional Libraries information services manager Paul Burden says while the virtual library is still small - with only five of the seven leading publishers allowing their books to be borrowed through OverDrive - demand for digital borrowing is growing.

''We have 13 physical branches and a couple of mobile libraries, but now we're looking at a virtual branch,'' Burden says. ''In a year since the library launched its e-book collection, it's now lending 3000 digital books every month. It's nowhere close to print, but it is becoming more popular,'' Burden says.

Eastern Regional's most sought-after e-books have been Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, closely followed by Jodi Picoult novels. The most popular title by an Australian author is Anh Do's The Happiest Refugee.

Burden says romance, erotica and supernatural romance genres are also on the up - with digital readers able to hide their guilty pleasure for saucy tales such as In Bed with a Highlander by Maya Banks inside a screen. ''The anonymity of downloading a racy e-book title at home rather than coming into the library seems to be coming into play here,'' Burden says.

Anderson, who loves traditional murder mysteries, admits her favourite authors are still hard to come by in digital, which she says has forced her to diversify and consider other writers.

''It's a shame, but now I'm reading different authors like Claire Rayner and [characters such as] Sherlock Holmes.''

The long-time book buff says she likes the freedom of pre-ordering an e-book online and getting an email to tell her when it's available. But while you might expect loan copies to be limitless with digital, licensing agreements still restrict many titles to single copies, so there's still a borrowing queue.

''In regards to the single copies, this is purely a licensing agreement,'' City of Melbourne spokeswoman Shelley Blake says. ''If the e-books are really popular, we tend to get multiple copies.''

The Melbourne Library's digital catalogue offers 1408 e-books for borrowing and 34,000 public domain titles to choose from that never expire and don't count against your library checkout - classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, magazines such as The Botanical and books on philosophy, folklore and travel.

Holding the virtual library back from further expansion are the limited publishing rights and the fact OverDrive doesn't operate on Amazon's Kindle outside of the US.

That's set to change with the company's recent acquisition of Australian e-book firm Booki.sh and its technology, as it prepares to launch the more flexible OverDrive Read system later in the year based on open standards HTML5 and EPUB, which enable access on all devices.

Burden says kudos should go to Australian publishers who are already on board and trailblazing the digital shift, including Text Publishing, which has given permission for inclusion in OverDrive's collection of more than 650,000 digital titles, with Eastern Regional buying 250 e-books from Text Publishing from Australian authors including Peter Temple, Kate Grenville, Shane Maloney, S.J. Watson, Raimond Gaita and Kate Holden.

Libraries such as Eastern Regional run starter sessions to show people how to set up the software, which members such as Anderson say opens the e-book gateway.

''It was frustrating in the beginning with downloading from OverDrive, so I went to a talk at the Boronia branch to learn all about it,'' she says.

''After that, it was foolproof.''

Since then she's borrowed 20 e-book titles and has taken to reading outdoors. ''God, it's good,'' she says.

''We went for a holiday in Somers and my husband was fishing on Flinders Pier and it was wonderful. I was sitting there reading, the wind blowing a gale, and it didn't bother me in the slightest because the pages weren't blowing.''

The learned retiree is now reading an e-book a week, ordering in advance from the Eastern Regional website, and is chuffed to get an email when it's available to download, which she says takes just seconds.

''It's 100 per cent easier on an e-reader. You can borrow them for three weeks, and then they disappear from your list.

''And you don't have to walk out of the library holding a bunch of books.''

On a train to Mildura, the grandmother recalls the joy of being able to travel with her Kobo and not her swag of hardbacks. ''I read both, but if we're going away, all I take is the e-reader loaded with my library e-books. It's wonderful.''

LINKS erl.vic.gov.au,elibrary.melbourne.vic.gov.au

The story The future of borrowed time first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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