Three Alabama libraries partner on downloadable digital books

By Garry Mitchell
Associated Press

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) _ While books on tape remain library favorites,
tech-savvy customers have something new to borrow _ audio books and e-books for listening on home computers or handheld devices, such as portable audio equipment.

Three Alabama libraries have partnered on a new online service that gives customer access to popular audio books directly from their homes and offices.

The Cullman County Public Library System, the Thomas B. Norton Public
Library in Gulf Shores and the Orange Beach Public Library teamed up to
offer the new service. Customers need only have a valid library card from one of the participating libraries for the free service.

Cleveland, Ohio-based OverDrive, Inc., which sells downloadable audio books for libraries, supplied the technology for the new service called Camellia Net.

"It's like books on tape or a CD, but you download this through a computer. Patrons at home can burn it on CD for personal use," said
Cullman County Librarian John Paul Myrick. "The system keeps track of what's checked out. How many times it's checked out. It's automatic."

And it eliminates late fees. When the lending period expires, the customer is no longer able to access the material because the computer software cuts it off. However, if they've copied it to a compact disc, there's no way to retrieve it.

"Every major popular publisher _ fiction or reference _ is making
their materials available in this format," said OverDrive CEO Steve Potash. He said it will become commonplace for a person sitting in a bus station or
airport to be listening to library books on a personal device, such as "smart" cellphones.

Myrick said the new system is available for any public library in
Alabama that wishes to join by paying a fee. Camellia Net's collection
includes bestsellers and classics, fiction and nonfiction, from popular authors and leading publishers.

There are other online services, such as e-books provider NetLibrary,
which is used by the Birmingham library.

"To anticipate the coming demand, we are in the process of evaluating
whether or not to expand this current offering of e-books or to change the focus," said Birmingham Library Director Barbara Sirmans.

She said since all of these titles will be online, "a lot of planning will have to be done on marketing these products to our public. It is one of our goals for the coming year."

She said the Birmingham library has not had much demand for popular fiction works online.

But as Ipods, PDAs, and similar products continue to become more
affordable, she said, "We expect the demand to be right around the

"It's not a huge part of the industry," said Dean Soldner, director of
collection development at the Mobile Public Library, which hasn't offered
e-books yet, partly because of lack of demand for them.

Soldner also pointed to a generational problem to overcome:
computer-savvy young people unwilling to listen to a book and older people willing to listen to a book but lacking computer skills.

Orange Beach bucks that perception. With a population of 4,000, the
library, which has an annual budget of $500,000, has issued more than
10,000 library cards to customers.

Orange Beach Library Director Bonnie Lee said snowbirds _ as tourists
from the North are known _ use computers to keep up with events and
business back home.

"We have a pretty sophisticated customer base," Lee said.

She said the library has 93 audio books available for the new service
and already 55 of them have been checked out among all three libraries on CamelliaNet. Customers can only download one book at a time.

"However, if we see that there is a demand for a particular title, we
will purchase another `copy' of that title," Lee said. "This is something
for everybody to do from home. It's one of those 24/7 services."
If customers notice a title is checked out, they can sign up to hold
it and when the title is checked back in, they will receive an e-mail notice
that it's available.

Orange Beach is reopening its library this week after Hurricane Ivan
repairs were completed. About a dozen trees fell on the library roof, but
the book collection survived.