Baltimore libraries will soon check out Nooks in addition to books

Nyilah Covington, second left, a librarian at the Pennsylvania branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, helps train the staff at the Reisterstown branch (l-r) librarian assistant Lamar Pinkett, librarian Greg Fromme, branch manager Vera Fattah and office supervisor Jacqueline Linton on the use of a Nook computers.
Nyilah Covington, second left, a librarian at the Pennsylvania branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, helps train the staff at the Reisterstown branch (l-r) librarian assistant Lamar Pinkett, librarian Greg Fromme, branch manager Vera Fattah and office supervisor Jacqueline Linton on the use of a Nook computers. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

After Crystal Langdon checks out 22 books from her library on Reisterstown Road on Wednesday, she plans to carry them home on the Metro in her purse.

And preteen boys enrolled at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy may soon be able to leave their book bags at home, because their reading lists for the entire year will fit into their back pockets.

For the past three years, library patrons have been able to download virtual books onto some electronic readers, such as Barnes & Noble's Nook, or the Sony Reader, for the three-week loan period that is standard for hardcover and paperback volumes.

But the Enoch Pratt Free Library is about to become a leader nationwide in bringing new technology to library patrons. The Baltimore library network is launching two pilot programs aimed at putting into customers' hands not just virtual titles, but the electronic devices with which to read them.

Starting Wednesday, a total of 28 Barnes & Noble Nooks that have been preloaded with 22 fiction and nonfiction best-sellers, classics and children's favorites will be available for loan at the libraries at 6310 Reisterstown Road. and at 400 E. 33rd St.

And this fall, the 68 middle-school boys attending St. Ignatius, an independent Jesuit school at 740 N. Calvert St., will receive special versions of the e-readers that contain the required reading for the entire academic year.

"People are changing the way they're reading, and the Pratt is embracing that transformation," says Carla Hayden, the library system's chief executive officer.

"There aren't a lot of times in a profession when there's a significant new development that's revolutionizing the whole industry. It's exciting to be a part of it."

Baltimore isn't the first library system in the nation or even in the state, to acquire and lend out the costly electronic readers. About two dozen lending institutions, including the library systems in Howard and Calvert counties, beat Baltimore to the punch.

But, the so-called City That Reads is only the second urban area — and by far the largest — to make electronic reading devices available to anyone with a library card. Baltimore has roughly four times the population of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the only other sizable city to implement a similar program.

Howard County rolled out its lending program for Nooks in October, and they were an instant, smash success. There are currently 573 holds for each of the 60 devices owned by the system. But a more than six-month waiting period to try out one of the devices hasn't deterred enthusiasts.

"Even with the long holds, some people not only check out a reader, but as soon as they return it, their name's right back on the list," says Valerie Gross, president and chief executive officer of the Howard County Library System.

"They might not be able to make the investment in purchasing their own device, but they tell us: 'I can't wait to borrow it again.'"

The waiting lists seem to indicate that for some, electronic readers are no longer merely a convenience that allows them to bring the equivalent of a crate of books on vacation without having to pay excess baggage fees, or to download novels at home and thereby skip a trip to the library. Howard County's long queues imply that some readers will pass over a bound volume in favor of a virtual book even when planning to read in the relative comfort of their bedrooms.

Senior citizens are some of the device's most passionate fans, and they tell Gross that they like being able to put aside their spectacles and adjust the font size on an electronic device, especially since the number of large-print books in circulation is limited. Environmentally conscious readers can mentally count up the number of trees that have been saved by eschewing physical books, which have pages made from wood pulp. And avid readers enjoy being able to forgo back strain by carrying dozens, if not hundreds, of titles on a device weighing less than half a pound.

Langdon, who lives in Owings Mills, plans to put her name in for an electronic reader at the Reisterstown branch the second the devices become available Wednesday.

She usually has between two and four books with her at all times, so she never runs out of reading material during her hour-long daily commute to and from her accounting job at M&T Bank. It's tiring, she says, to lug around the equivalent of a set of weights wherever she goes.

"I read a lot, and these devices are something I've been curious about," Langdon says.

"I see a lot of people riding the Metro downtown every day who have a Nook or a Kindle. But they're expensive, there are different kinds to choose from, and I haven't been sure I was ready to make the purchase. This will allow me to try it out."

Here's how the Pratt's program, which is being funded by private donations, will work:

A customer who checks out an electronic reader will have access to all the virtual books it contains. The first selection of 22 titles include Bram Stoker's "Dracula," the original sexy vampire book; Kathryn Stockett's current hit, "The Help," which is set in Mississippi during the burgeoning civil rights movement, and Rebecca Skloots' "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," about a Baltimore woman whose blood cells resulted in crucial medical advances.

After the 21-day loan period expires, customers will find they can no longer open the files on the device. They must either return the electronic reader or renew it, which will be allowed once if there are no holds on the equipment.

If the e-reader or its component parts get damaged or lost, the customer will be charged a replacement fee, Hayden said, from $8 for a gel cover to $139 for the Nook itself.

The Waverly and Reisterstown branches were chosen for the pilot program because they serve readers of different races, ages and incomes. Eventually, library officials hope to expand the program to the remaining 20 branches in the Baltimore system.

Hayden is also excited about the e-readers' potential to help kids learn. She thinks the electronic devices, which will be launched this fall at St. Ignatius, could be particularly beneficial for low-income students whose families can't afford to spend a lot of money at the bookstore.

"One of the difficulties that teachers have when they put together a required reading list is making sure there are enough copies of the books," Hayden says. "This way, they can load 47 books into one device. This is just one way that the library of the future is going to operate."

Though neither Hayden nor Gross put it in so many words, pre-loading titles onto an electronic device might allow them to neatly sidestep one of the industry's current controversies.

At the moment, most libraries allow customers who already own a Nook or Sony Reader to "borrow" the virtual titles by downloading the files. At least, that's the theory. The reality tends to be more problematic.

"I haven't had much luck trying to borrow e-books from the library," says Zach McClain, a 28-year-old software developer who lives in Canton.

"There are only two to three copies of each title, and they're usually checked out and have a waiting list. That's the biggest drawback, as far as I'm concerned."

That's perhaps one reason why electronic volumes still make up just a tiny fraction of the Pratt's total circulation. Last year, about 7,400 virtual books were checked out from Baltimore branches, or half of one percent of the library's total circulation of 1.5 million titles.

Publishing companies are attempting to combat dwindling profits by limiting the number of times each electronic version of a book can be checked out from a lending institution before another virtual copy must be purchased.

HarperCollins, for instance, restricts checkouts for its electronic copies to 26, or about a year's circulation for the most-in-demand titles. After that milestone is reached, the file evaporates and disappears from the library's collection.

Physical books, publishers say, eventually wear out and must be replaced. Why should digital books be treated differently?

According to a statement issued by HarperCollins, "We have serious concerns that our previous policy of selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity … would place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors."

But libraries can duck the issue by pre-loading titles onto a Nook and lending out the device itself. The publishing companies have no way of knowing whether 26 customers, or 260, have checked out an e-reader.

"Our mission is to promote education and literacy for everyone," says Jackie Rafferty, a Massachusetts librarian who prepared a position paper on the controversy for the American Library Association.

"It doesn't matter what your race is, or how old you are, or if you have disabilities, or even whether you can walk through the door of the library. If you have a library card, you should be able to get access to our materials."