Tech Talk: Not such a good read

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Will e-books replace libraries? David Behrens investigates.

IT won’t have escaped your notice that public libraries are falling out of favour with local authorities in these belt-tightening times. Which is why some councils are seizing the opportunity to lend electronic books instead of paper ones. It’s all done online, there are no ink pads to refill and of course no staff to employ.

Right now, you can borrow books to either read or listen to on your computer or mobile device. It isn’t terribly practical to read on a PC for any length of time, but it is on a tablet – and if we all had one we could wave goodbye to bricks and mortar libraries almost overnight. So it’s perhaps a good job we haven’t.

The level of service available at the moment depends on where you live. If you have a Leeds, York or North Yorkshire library membership you have at your disposal about 3,000 electronic books and audio books, all of which can be downloaded pretty much instantly thanks to a deal with an American supplier called Overdrive. The service is like iTunes, though far less intuitive. First you download a free “e-reader” to your PC, then browse a website for the titles you want. You can also install a free app on your iPhone, iPad, Blackberry or Android device and browse from there. Just like a real library, you can borrow up to four titles at a time, for up to three weeks – after which they must be renewed to remain readable.

But there are drawbacks – 3,000 titles is a very small selection indeed compared with the stocks held at even the smallest library. And navigating the available titles on Overdrive’s website is an exercise in hunting needles among (not very big) haystacks. Worse, if you have a Kindle, you’re beating on a closed door; rights issues render the Overdrive system incompatible outside the US.

If you live elsewhere in Yorkshire you may be further out of luck. Bradford, for instance, says only that it is “currently investigating the possibility” of supplying e-books. Wakefield operates a downloadable audio books service. Book publishers are a further obstacle and understandably so. It became apparent that readers outside Europe and the US could bypass the security and read what they wanted without so much as a library card.