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In Maryland and the nation, public libraries are seeing growing demand by readers for e-books.


Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes up 366 pages. That's the old way of measuring books.

Now, as an e-book, it's 1,400 kilobytes, or about five minutes of download time for each - if you have a fast modem.

Hoping to keep pace with technology - as well as patrons' changing habits - public libraries across Maryland now offer many titles as electronic books, a format that has been around for years but is experiencing a surge in popularity.

Fourteen library systems in the state - including in Baltimore and surrounding counties - began offering e-books within the past month. And this summer, they will launch downloadable audio books.

"Different media are available, and there's a public demand for them," said Jim Fish, director of the Baltimore County Public Library. "Really good libraries evolve. E-books are something librarians have been watching for years now."

Libraries in other states are evolving, too. Nationally, more than half of all libraries serving towns of more than 100,000 people offer e-books, according to a recent survey conducted by Richard Boss, an information technology consultant in Baltimore.

Patrons visit a library's Web site to view titles and descriptions. After a library card number is entered, available books can be accessed with a computer or a personal digital assistant - such as a Palm Pilot - using Adobe Reader software.

"The file contains two components. One is the actual book and the other is the software that allows you to access the book for a certain period of time," said Scott Reinhart, assistant director of the Carroll County Public Library.

After three weeks, a patron's access to the book expires, eliminating the prospect of late fees.

Cardholders in Maryland have checked out 1,118 titles. Another 352 titles are on waiting lists.

And library administrators expect usage to rise as they buy more titles from OverDrive Inc., a Cleveland company that provides the software behind the e-books.

"They're more popular than I even expected," Reinhart said. "I thought it would start more slowly and just build because we haven't had any huge press release or anything."

Reinhart recently downloaded two Sidney Sheldon novels onto his laptop computer for a trip to Western Maryland.

"The words are still the words, it's just the delivery mechanism is a little different," Reinhart said. "I was still able to get immersed in the language."

The best part, he said: "You don't have to worry about carting around 10 books that weigh a pound apiece."

The e-book program costs a library $5,720 initially, then $3,200 annually for a system such as that at the Harford County Public Library, which has a $13.4 million budget.

"One person can use the e-book at one time," said Jamie Watson, assistant materials manager at the Harford library. "So it's just like a regular library book. We buy multiple copies of things that are going to be popular."

Some of the most popular e-books are CliffsNotes study guides and other reference publications, according to Boss.

His research showed that libraries have not seen a decline in the circulation of printed books since the introduction of e-books.

Despite the advent of the new service, area librarians are not predicting the demise of the traditional book.

"I think the paper book isn't going away any time soon," Watson said. "People really like the aesthetic of the paper book, turning the page, looking at the cover."

E-book technology has been around at least since 2000, when Stephen King released "Riding the Bullet" solely online. But he abandoned the experiment because of Internet piracy - more than half of the people who subscribed to the book had not actually paid for it.

E-books have become a way for lesser-known authors to be published. When Jesse Glass wrote The Witness: Slavery in 19th-Century Carroll County, he did not want people to have to pay for the book, he said. So he offers free downloads of the book through his online publishing Web site, Ahadada Books.

"It will remain free of charge as a matter of principle," Glass wrote in an e-mail from Japan, where he teaches. "They're available to anyone in the world who has access to the technology to download and print them."

How it works

E-books are offered by libraries in Baltimore and the counties of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's, Frederick and Washington, as well as some libraries on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland. Here's how it works:

1. Visit http://maryland.lib.over, which also can be found as a link on many library systems' Web sites.

2. Browse the titles and select a book to "check out." Titles that are already checked out can be put on hold. An e-mail alert will be sent when a title becomes available.

3. To download the e-book, punch in your library card number.

4. The e-book will appear on your computer as an Adobe Reader file.

5. After three weeks, the file becomes unreadable and must be deleted manually.

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