Despite difficulties with publishers, Allegheny County libraries find way to offer e-books

Tom Fontaine
| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 9:38 a.m.

Citing technical and financial issues, several of the nation's biggest publishers refuse to sell electronic books to public libraries so patrons can download e-books at no cost.

That hasn't stopped intrepid librarians in Allegheny County.

Some are buying popular titles themselves to load onto e-readers, such as Kindles and Nooks, which they then lend to members.

Not being able to download in-demand books from publishers such as McMillan, Penguin, and Simon & Shuster is “frustrating for us and obviously for our patrons,” said Dustin Shilling, director of Northern Tier Regional Library in Richland.

Titles that can be downloaded are obtained via the county's e-book provider, called OverDrive.

The privately owned company is a Cleveland-based provider of e-books, audiobooks and other digital content to more than 19,000 libraries, schools and colleges worldwide.

Library patrons in Allegheny County use it to download materials onto their personal e-readers, computers or smartphones for no charge. They may keep the downloads for up to three weeks.

Allegheny County public libraries will pay OverDrive a combined $200,000 this year for its service, said Sarah Beasley, coordinator of e-Resources for Carnegie Library, who oversees the countywide effort.

That's up from $50,000 in each of the past two years, she said.

To date this year, cardholders have downloaded almost 225,000 materials from OverDrive, up from about 86,000 last year and fewer than 18,000 in 2010, Beasley said.

The county's OverDrive collection currently numbers more than 32,000 titles, up from about 3,400 in 2010, she said.

“Our collection is growing every day,” Beasley said, noting it remains small compared to the libraries' hard-copy collections, which contain millions of books.

“We invest a lot of money countywide to pay for that (OverDrive) collection. It would be nice if we were able to get more of a full spectrum of what is being offered by all publishers,” Shilling said.

“One of the things we keep hearing from our customer base is that they wish they could get more e-books more easily through the library system,” said Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the Allegheny Library Association.

“It warrants some significant attention.”

It's not only patrons who benefit from e-readers, librarians said.

“One of the reasons we acquired e-readers is because it's a less-expensive way to expand our collection,”said Cynthia Richey, director of Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

Richey said the library spends, on average, between $9.99 and $17.99 apiece for e-books it puts on its 20 Nooks and Kindles

Hard copies of the same titles can be up to twice as much — even with discounts that publishers offer to libraries.

Richey said despite their benefits, e-readers have limits beyond titles being withheld by publishers.

Librarians say they are required to restrict downloads, based on the number of e-book copies that are purchased.

There were 368 people waiting to download one of the 94 e-book copies of the best-seller “Gone Girl” as of Tuesday, according to the OverDrive website.

“That's applying a service model that is more than 100 years old to 21st century technology,” Richey said.

“Most people are content to wait on a hold list just like they do for a hard-copy book, but there should be a way to loan out e-books to multiple users at a time.”

Mt. Lebanon, Northern Tier, Whitehall and Shaler North Hills also offer books on e-readers that are not obtained through OverDrive.

Sharon McRae, director of the Shaler North Hills Library, said the library bought nine Kindles with a donation from the estate of a patron who was a “gadget fan.”

It currently puts the same 100 titles or so on each one, but is considering offering themed e-books, such as ones geared toward children or fans of mysteries or nonfiction, McRae said.

“One of our goals with the e-readers is to try to meet the demand for best-sellers and give people an opportunity to use e-readers who might not otherwise have had one,”McRae said.

Tom Fontaine is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy