Why buy e-books, when you can e-borrow them?

At the Vineyard Haven library, Hal Garneau helps Debbie Yapp learn the magic that will allow her to download electronic books to her Kindle. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

“Sometimes there’s this misconception that new technology is only adopted by the young,” Amy Ryan, director of the Vineyard Haven Public Library, said the other day. E-readers, according to Ms. Ryan, are leveling that playing field. “They’ve become popular with older people who do a lot of traveling, families living on a boat for the summer. They can make any book a large print book. They really seem to have universal appeal.”

Ms. Ryan is in a position to monitor this trend. The nature of electronic books makes them easy to share with other libraries. With more than 6,000 unique titles now available to Vineyard readers through CLAMS (Cape Libraries Automatic Sharing System), Ms. Ryan says she sees more library patrons jumping on the e-reader bandwagon.

To help accommodate this growing customer base, the Vineyard Haven library offers one-on-one instruction on downloading e-books (and audio books) from the CLAMS extensive collection to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, tablet, or other e-reader. Once a patron has registered a device, “borrowing” an e-book is fast, easy, and free. Access to a wide range of reading material from your home computer or directly to your e-reader is available any time, day or night.

Step by step instructions for downloading e-books and audiobooks to most popular e-readers may be found on the CLAMS website (clamsnet.org) but, because each device requires different steps to access material, a member of the Vineyard Haven library staff is available every Saturday from 10 to 12 am, to walk patrons through the easy process. Most people require no more than half an hour to familiarize themselves with the system, according to Hal Garneau, who is one of the instructors.

“It’s actually quite easy to do once you have the application downloaded,” he said, “It all depends on the device you have.” Because of the variety of e-readers, the lessons are personalized for each patron.

The Vineyard Haven Library has offered the lessons for about two years, but Ms. Ryan has seen a marked increase in interest since the West Tisbury Library joined the CLAMS consortium in January. Chilmark and Aquinnah will become CLAMS libraries by the end of March, bringing all of the Vineyard’s six libraries into the system. The availability of e-books was a big part of the incentive for the up-Island libraries to tap into the CLAMS collection. All CLAMS cardholders can download up to five books at a time.

The purchase and distribution of electronic books can be a complicated — and often costly – undertaking for libraries. “The publishers impose a model on libraries that mirrors the way that we loan print books — one user per copy,” Ms. Ryan said.

While an individual can generally buy an e-book for around $10, libraries can pay up to $100, depending on the publisher. Some titles command lower prices but restrict libraries to limited circulation numbers. (Harper Collins allows only 26 uses.)

And some publishers refuse to sell to libraries at all. The Vineyard Haven Library has posted a list of publishers that currently restrict libraries access to their catalogues. Six major publishers are listed. “These publishers refuse to sell or license e-books to libraries,” the library reports. “Think that’s wrong? We do too.” The flyers encourage patrons to contact the publishers directly.

By joining forces, the CLAMS libraries are able to offer thousands of e-books to Cape Cod residents. For certain best-sellers, the consortium has up to 40 copies. “When at least seven people are waiting for a book, we buy another copy,” Ms. Ryan said. They buy most of the titles jointly with CLAMS consortium members, but individual libraries place orders based on customer demand.

“All of the CLAMS libraries contribute to a central fund,” said Ms. Ryan. “They use that fund to buy for the consortium.”

The availability of electronic media has not affected the circulation of print books, according to Ms. Ryan. “That demand is still there. It has remained steady,” she said, “When we look at our budget, it makes it tricky for us.”

Ms. Ryan is president-elect of the CLAMS board and serves on two CLAMS committees dealing with digital resources. She is also a member of a state advisory committee focusing on online content.

“We’ve always done a lot of sharing, but I think this collection [of e-books] has changed the way we work together,” said Ms. Ryan. “It’s a lot more necessary for us to coordinate and communicate with each other.”

While buying e-books is quite an involved and constantly evolving process for libraries, for the end user, borrowing electronically is simple and easy to understand and accomplish. After a brief tutorial with Mr. Garneau last Saturday, Debbie Yapp of West Tisbury was pleased with how quickly she was able to learn the system, even though she described her tech skills as limited.

“He was awesome,” Ms. Yapp said of Mr. Garneau. “He gave me all kinds of background.”

Ms. Yapp got a Kindle as a retirement gift about a year ago. She been buying e-books from Amazon to read while traveling. Although she has held a CLAMS card and patronized both the Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury libraries for years, it was not until West Tisbury joined the CLAMS system that she became aware of the e-book rental option. “I was looking on the website,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much was available.”

Nevertheless, she said, “I do prefer print books when I’m at home. But there are those times when you want to read something now.”