Libraries add electronic books as more patrons own e-readers


The three down-Island libraries now offer electronically distributed books, audio books, and music through Cape Library Automated Materials Sharing network (CLAMS).

These new library services are mainly driven by the popularity of a new gadget called an “e-reader,” and borrowers must own one to store and display e-books. CLAMS digital books may also be played on a desktop or laptop computer, and applications will soon will be available for the iPad, iPhone, or Android. Music can be played on an iPod or MP3 player.

Why buy an e-reader?

What’s so great about e-readers? There is something companionable about a real book. There is the comfortable weight of it on your chest while you pause to think about an interesting idea or (grab a quick nap). There is the satisfying visual index of progress as your bookmark works its way between covers, particularly if it’s a long, challenging book. Books even have familiar smells — the new-ink smell of a best seller, the old-paper smell of a classic friend revisited. There is the pride of ownership of bookcases full of real books, the titles on the spines saying something about the person who lives in the room.

No, libraries are not going to abandon paper books. But e-books have several advantages. The first is economy of storage. Books are hard to store. Whether at your house or in the town library, shelf space quickly becomes scarce, and moving books can be an expensive pain. Our damp climate is not friendly to paper books. But an e-reader can store hundreds of books, instantly available wherever you go and electronically searchable.

Imagine you are an inveterate reader planning a two-week vacation. How many novels will you bring to read on the plane, at the beach, or in your lodging? Will you be in the mood for serious reading or light entertainment, or some of each? An e-reader is about the size of one thin paperback book and weighs only a few ounces. It will take up almost no space in your carry-on luggage. You could load it up with more e-books than you could read in two weeks. If you take your e-reader to the beach, you can stop reading that serious history of existentialism and switch to “Twilight” and no one will know.

The print on the screen looks like real ink on paper, and touch-screen readers turn the page by wiping your finger at the corner, just as if you were turning a paper page.

Most can be read in bright sunlight, and some models can be read in the dark.

Most e-readers have useful features like built-in dictionaries — highlight the word on the page and the definition appears in a box.

Some have a search feature: Forgot who this character is? Find the first time her name appears and reread that paragraph. Forgotten what Thucydides said about Xerxes’ father? Find it fast.

E-readers are available from several manufacturers (see sidebar) at a cost of between $90 and $500, depending on page size and features. Owners use the internet to download a book from a distributor’s website to their home computers using a free application, then transfer the book to their readers with a USB connector. E-readers that have a wifi or 3G function can download books directly. E-books generally cost far less than a hard copy because the publisher has almost no printing and distribution costs. Tom Clancy’s just-released book, Dead or Alive, lists at $28.95 in hard cover, but it can be downloaded for $12. Most titles are in the $7 to $9 range.

E-books from the library

Patrons in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, or Edgartown may borrow e-books from the CLAMS network using a program called Overdrive, which is free. At the end of the borrowing period, the e-book becomes inoperable and should be deleted.

Important note: Vineyard Haven library director Amy Ryan cautions that while most e-readers use the Adobe PDF or EPUB system, the Kindle, a popular and well-known e-reader, does not. Kindles do not work with CLAMS.

The borrowing process is very similar to buying an e-book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. CLAMS owns the electronic rights to about 1,000 titles of e-books and about 5,000 audio files. The borrower browses the website at, and checks out using a library card. The selections are downloaded to the borrower’s computer, and then may be transferred to an e-reader.

Libraries cannot make copies of the e-books they own. A library buys a single electronic copy in the same way it buys a single hard copy. Most libraries choose to buy the electronic rights to only one or two copies. So a patron may have to wait to download a popular new release, just as one has to wait for hard copies. As the popularity of e-books increases, CLAMS will offer many more titles, and multiple copies may become more common.

West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah residents will find getting library e-books only slightly harder. Anyone can usually get a library card from a down-Island library and a CLAMS card free. Any resident of Massachusetts can join the Boston Public Library on-line and access the Overdrive program that way. The BPL has 15,000 e-books available.

Even without a library card, one can find thousands of public domain e-books (which are free) on Google Books (, or choose from 33,000 free classics on Project Gutenberg ( Amazon and Barnes & Noble also offer thousands of classic titles for free.

Nevertheless, Chilmark librarian Ebba Hierta told The Times that she is feeling pressure to offer e-books through her library. “My summer patrons from out of state want e-books. They can’t get a BPL card, and they’d have to drive down-Island and pay $10 to join another library. I want to offer them the service.”

Ms. Hierta said that Chilmark can’t afford to join Overdrive alone, but she is exploring forming a consortium with West Tisbury and Aquinnah.