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"It has been hugely popular--we are having trouble keeping up with the demand," says Mary Knapp, Madison Public Library, WI. "We have several patrons who drove over 70 miles one way and paid the nonresident fee just so they could [acquire library cards to] use it," marvels Earlene Molker, Richland Public Library, WA. What high-demand library service could inspire public library patrons to drive nearly 150 miles and pay nonresident fees? Downloadable audiobooks.
First offered to public libraries in 2004, downloadable audiobooks have grown by leaps and bounds. According to the Audio Publishers Association, their sales today account for 21 percent of the spoken-word audio market. Leading downloadable audiobook provider OverDrive reported a whopping 70 percent increase in checkouts from 2008 to 2009. With EBSCO's recent acquisition and planned growth of NetLibrary's e-content and with Ingram Digital newly having jumped aboard with its MyiLibrary Audio platform, downloadable audiobooks have nowhere to go but up.
It hasn't been easy, however. WMA. DRM. MP3. AAC. File extensions small on letters but very big on consequences for librarians, consumers, and the audiobook industry at large.
Public librarians across the country shared the issues they have with downloadable audiobook pricing, compatibility, and usability in an informal survey conducted via Publib. To see how the major downloadable audiobook distributors address those concerns, I also spoke with representatives from OverDrive, Ingrain Digital, and NetLibrary. In some instances, progress has been made; in others, not, though the limitations don't always come from the distributors but from the publishers themselves.
Patrons can search for a title on their library's stand-alone downloadable audiobook web site, check it out with their library card number or a username/password, then download it onto their home or library computer (and/or onto a smartphone, wirelessly, in the case of OverDrive). They can also transfer the title from their computer to a compatible portable media player or smartphone via a USB connection. Once the loan period is up--poof!--the audiobook is returned, i.e., access expires.
Check out, download--in some cases, transfer--then play. Nothing to it, right? Wrong! Certainly, the advantages for libraries of the downloadable format over the physical one are numerous: 24/7 service to patrons, speedy turnaround on orders, no physical media to break, no wasted time spent on the holds shelf, no overdue or billed items. But while libraries have endured plenty ofaudiobook format changes over the years-from LPs to cassettes to CDs to MP3-CDs to preloaded digital--we've never before faced audiobook issues like those introduced by downloadables.
As one Washington State public librarian puts it, "All players and readers are different and everyone has a different problem." (To be fair, however, if my 72-year-old mother can manage to download two to three audiobooks per week onto her Creative Zen, the situation can only be so bad.)
Plays well with others ... not!
In the early days of downloadable audio, OverDrive and NetLibrary required patrons to download digital rights management (DRM)--protected Windows Media …