eBooks in Overdrive

Like many academic library patrons in 2010, if Yale library users found a book available on Kindle through Amazon and wanted to get it from the library, they would have to find a print copy of the book in the Yale system and go to a library to pick it up. This changed in June of 2011 when Yale University Library became one of only a few academic libraries in the world to offer eBook lending through Overdrive. In order to explain how this came to pass, and to describe some of the challenges associated with integrating eBooks into the collection of a major reference library, Tod Gilman, librarian for literature in English, and Marsha Garman, acquisition librarian and interim head of library acquisitions, came to TwTT to talk about the development and implementation of the two year Overdrive pilot.

Patrons have wanted to borrow eBooks almost since their invention, but the lending of an intangible work poses many challenges, not least of which is the technical one. Without running afoul of copyright law, the library had to figure out a way to distribute electronic texts where readers had to return the books for use by others after the lending period, without keeping permanent copies for themselves. Initially this was set to be done through the lending of entire Kindles, but with ambiguous wording in the Amazon user agreement, as well as the physical difficulty of lending and collecting the reader, this approach was deemed infeasible. Instead, the Yale library turned to a service that has become popular in public libraries known as Overdrive.

Overdrive is an eBook lending service that allows libraries to purchase items from a catalog of over 650,000 electronic books and audiobooks and then distribute them using a web site branded for the individual university, but maintained by Overdrive. This creates an online digital library, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that behaves much like a conventional print library. Users search for and check out a title, which they can then download to their portable reader or audio device. Once they have checked out a title, it is theirs for a period of 7, 14, or 21 days and cannot be used by other readers at their institution unless the library has purchased multiple copies. If users finish an eBook early, then they can return it from the device they initially used to download it, freeing their account to borrow another book up to a limit of five at a time. Titles that are not returned before their deadline are automatically returned for use by another reader.

While the Overdrive service is both intuitive and convenient, it presents several challenges for research libraries. The first, and possibly most significant, is that with a history in public library lending, Overdrive’s catalog has many more popular titles than academic press books available for purchase. The second major challenge is the integration of Overdrive’s service into existing university infrastructure, including the online catalog, Orbis, and the existing central authentication system (CAS).

Although Overdrive provides tools to connect library users to the eBook lending service, these systems were designed for barcode based public libraries. In order to allow NetID login to Overdrive, Yale had to develop an application that could communicate between Yale’s authentication system and Overdrive’s. Once access was possible, the challenge of linking the catalogs became apparent. In order to make Overdrive books visible in Orbis, a new catalog entry, known as a MARC record, had to be inserted for each book. First, the most basic form of each book’s record was obtained from the online computer library center (OCLC) using a list of acquired titles. Next, metadata from Overdrive was overlaid onto those basic MARC records. After the creation of the record, a link is inserted that allows patrons to connect to the item on Overdrive from the record in Orbis. Audiobooks also appear in the Orbis catalog, and can be identified by an audio icon next to the title. The result is that electronic books and digital audiobooks appear alongside physical books and CDs in the electronic catalog, making them more accessible to users.

Although users may be able to find electronic books alongside print versions in Orbis, they still have to download the items to their own personal reading devices in order to actually view the texts. Most books can be read on a laptop with either Amazon’s Kindle reading app or Adobe Digital Editions software installed, and many users will choose to use a tablet or an electronic reader for book consumption. Although tablets will often be very flexible in the content they can display, electronic readers are frequently more selective when it comes to format. Overdrive specifies before a book is added to a user’s shopping cart the formats in which that book is available. If a book is only available as a Kindle book, the only e-reader to support that item will be Amazon’s Kindle device. If a book is only available as an Adobe .epub file then most devices, including the Barnes and Noble Nook and Sony e-reader, will be able to open the item, but it will not be readable on a Kindle. Audiobooks must be loaded through Overdrive’s “Media Console” software to be transferred to individual devices. Although Yale has tried to ensure maximum availability of all works, individual publishers may set restrictions on the distribution format of their electronic books.

Like format, some other features of electronic books and media are restricted by publishers. Annotation and copying rules follow the platform in use – a product of publisher guidelines and device capabilities. When a Kindle book is annotated, Amazon stores all of the highlights and notes in the cloud so that if the user borrows the book again or purchases it him or herself, those notes and marks are saved. There is no comparable central storage system for Adobe based books, and the default Adobe software permits bookmarks as the only form of annotation.

Although some figures in the library were nervous about the ability of patrons to navigate different book formats within the Overdrive console, librarians were very enthusiastic about the possibility for patron driven acquisitions in Overdrive. Patrons can use an online form to ask the library to check whether a book is available through Overdrive and to acquire that book. The platform also has a feature where if there are four or more people on the waiting list for a book, another copy is automatically acquired and made available to the first person on the list. This ensures that even though electronic books cannot be “recalled” like physical books, there is always availability. Having a straightforward and fast acquisition path for new books is a boon to librarians, but just as important is the platform’s ability to host institution generated content. If, for example, a professor wants students to read his dissertation through Overdrive, there is a process through which the document can be published to Yale’s overdrive library and made available to Yale library patrons without being published to all the libraries that Overdrive serves.

Although the Overdrive program will continue as a pilot through the end of May 2013, the enthusiastic response by patrons and rapid growth of the electronic collection suggest that the library will continue to lend electronic books into the future. The future of Overdrive based electronic book lending at Yale may also someday extend into reserves. The current e-reserves system only permits the library to post a small percentage of the total page count of a book for student download. If courses require entire books, it may be possible to purchase multiple copies of the book for the Overdrive library and then lend the reserves electronically. While the precise nature of Yale’s future eBook lending program has yet to be decided, the Overdrive pilot makes it clear that minimizing format and licensing issues opens the way for eBooks in education.

For full coverage of this session, please click the video below

(note a slight delay upon initial playback):

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