By Dave Rogers
Librarians around Newburyport were buzzing with excitement last month when news broke that Amazon.com announced that owners of its e-book reader, the Kindle, will be able to download e-books from 11,000 libraries across the country starting this fall.
In an age when the relevance of public libraries is constantly questioned by cash-strapped taxpayers, just the thought of increasing circulation by tapping into the millions of Kindle users has librarians gushing.
Amazon's announcement comes at a time when many of its competitors — smartphone users, those with iPads, along with the Barnes & Noble Nook and the Sony Reader — already allow those who purchase its e-readers the ability to borrow from public libraries.
But starting this fall, Kindle owners will be able to start downloading through OverDrive, the platform that runs e-book systems for public libraries so that books are compatible with the Kindle.
Amazon has not revealed how many Kindles it has sold since its release, but executives have used the term millions in press releases, and reports in various blogs and news stories have the figure ranging from 5.5 to 8 million as of this January.
With the potential of millions of readers soon being able to access free books at public libraries across the country, librarians are readying themselves for what may be a sea change in terms of how patrons access available material.
But ask a Greater Newburyport librarian whether it will be a game-changer or not, and opinions vary.
Amesbury Public Library director Patty DiTullio agreed there has been a lot of buzz about Amazon's news, but said if there's an impact, it will be a gradual one.
"(It) won't transform the way we do business overnight," DiTullio said.
A potential roadblock is that OverDrive requires multiple steps, and patron feedback suggests the interface can be challenging, DiTullio said.
"It's going to be really interesting what happens," she said.
Another challenge might be the inability to obtain downloadable copies. Like physical books, libraries will only have so many copies of the digital version to lend out. Once they're gone, patrons will have to wait until they are "returned" to the library's computer database. Typically, libraries lend books out for three weeks. A Kindle version will not open after three weeks.
Despite the potential for a sluggish start, Salisbury Public Library director Terry Kyrios said responses from her patrons have been hugely positive based on the comments she has received on the library's Facebook page.
"More response from that than anything I've ever posted on Facebook," Kyrios said.
With the average price of a downloadable book anywhere between $9.99 and $14.99, she said the idea of saving serious money is very appealing.
"Why wouldn't you want a free best-seller on your Kindle?" Kyrios said.
Cindy Diminture, head librarian for the Newburyport Public Library, was also hedging her excitement, hinting that Amazon's news may be more of a breakthrough for Kindle owners rather than the library as a whole.
"This could be a great thing depending on how it actually operates," Diminture said.
But Diminture agreed that adding Kindle users to the library's portfolio of offerings is a welcome development.
"The broader the e-book accessibility is, certainly it's better for us and the users, as well," Diminture said.
At Newbury Town Library, any sign of more activity from patrons is good news, especially as the town is seeking to increase property taxes to raise $950,000 for town services, including the library.
"It allows us to provide (more) open access and free access to material," Jean Ackerly, Newbury's assistant library director, said of Amazon's announcement.
Librarians agree that the increased call for Kindle access came shortly after patrons unwrapped thousands of them around Christmastime.
"Last year, we had some interest, but this year after Christmas, we had tons of interest and inquiries about it," Kyrios said.
Kyrios said part of the reason for the increased interest is that technology for e-readers is improving rapidly, making the reading experience even more enjoyable.
"The technology is changing all the time, and it depends on what you want to do on the device," Kyrios said.
Many patrons enjoy the color screen version of the Nook for reading magazines and surfing the Internet, she said. But for those interested in reading books or newspapers, the Kindle is the e-reader of choice. The color Nook also suffers from a shorter battery life than the Kindle, whose black-and-white screen sucks less power, she said.
Another common theme as to why Kindle patrons are suddenly interested in e-books is that they're going on vacation and they don't want to lug pounds of books on the plane.
Asked whether adding Kindle users to the mix might lessen the need for physical books, DiTullio said she believes that there will always be strong demand for the printed page.
"But we do have a lot of people who use digital technology in addition to that," DiTullio said. "People want more choices."
Kyrios agreed, saying she is simply keeping up with technology, much like she has done by offering the free music downloading service Freegal, audiobooks and foreign language programs
"I know I'm not alone with that, but these are the things that we provide," Kyrios said.