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Illinois libraries struggle to buy popular e-books

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS – As e-books become more popular among library patrons, some Illinois librarians said they’re struggling to keep up with demand – especially for the most popular novels.

That’s because getting a single copy of an e-book for borrowers can cost $85 – more than six times what it costs for someone to buy a Kindle edition of the same book on Amazon.

“At $85 a copy for many popular titles, we just can’t afford to buy that many,” said Cathleen Blair, a librarian at the Mount Prospect Public Library. “We aren’t able to provide patrons with something they clearly want.”

Blair told The (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald that it’s not just the economics of e-books that are causing headaches for libraries. E-books also have different rules about borrowing limits and, she said, some publishers don’t issue library versions of e-books right away.

“It can get very confusing,” she said.

E-books typically account for only a small fraction of the material that’s checked out from libraries. But experts say the segment is growing rapidly.

“For us, it’s skyrocketing,” said Melissa Ziel, who’s the e-book coordinator at the Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin.

During the fiscal year that ended in June, Ziel said e-book checkouts were up 51 percent. For the year, patrons checked out almost 32,000 e-books.

“E-books are still a small portion of our overall circulation, but it’s clear those numbers are going to keep going up,” she said.

Things could begin to get easier as major publishers eye changing certain restrictions, following smaller, independent publishers that have already struck deals with libraries. Simon & Schuster launched a one-year pilot program this spring, releasing all of its titles in e-book form to three New York library systems. So far, results have been encouraging.

“Everyone thought it was a great idea, and the libraries we’re working with are busily ordering away,” said Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster. “Our hope is that we’d be able to expand it once this initial program is over.”

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