Turning Up Loan Volume: NYPL Offers Online Audio Books

New Yorkers might be in a perpetual rush, but for cardholders at the New York Public Library, reading on the go just got easier. In June, the NYPL launched its eAudio program, making more than 700 popular, educational, and literary titles available for download through the library's Web site. With authors ranging from Jane Austen to Dr. Phil, the size and variety of the audio book offerings make the NYPL's eAudio program one of the largest of its kind. While the NYPL isn't the first library to reach out to its community through the Internet, the scale on which eAudio hopes to operate makes it an important indicator of how libraries will offer digital services in the future.

Instead of having to visit the NYPL in Manhattan, eAudio users log onto the library's site from a remote computer and enter their library card's serial and PIN numbers. Once logged in, they can check the list of available books; if something is available, the user can download it directly to his or her PC. There are two categories of availability, based on the publisher's licensing agreement: "always available" books are granted an unlimited amount of downloads, while all other books have a set number of simultaneous loans—typically five to ten. Users who want to borrow an unavailable book are added to a waiting list and receive an email notification when that title is checked back in.

For 21 days, the borrower can listen to the file from the computer, burn it onto a CD, or put it on an mp3 player. Forget about having to return the files when you're done—once the 21 days have expired, according to Tim Farrell, publicist for the project, "the material checks itself back in," thanks to an encryption in the file that "self-destructs" loan period. However, the user can continue to listen to the book via any burned copies made during the loan period for as long as they like.

eAudio uses OverDrive Media Console, available as a free download, to receive, listen to, and transfer the audio files. OverDrive is a digital media vendor that provides a customized and integrated platform for a number of public libraries to build their own audio book loaning sites. OverDrive provides its own CD-burning software. But while the list of supported portable mp3 devices contains 500 different brand names, it is remarkable that the ubiquitous iPod, arguably the most popular mp3 device out there, is conspicuously absent. Farrell calls the Apple/Microsoft incompatibility "unfortunate," but doesn't see it as having a negative impact on the program's success—in the first week alone, 85% of eAudio holdings were loaned. Steve Potash, president of OverDrive, Inc., agreed, citing the fact that the eAudio demographic—typically users in their mid-40s—isn't the same for iPods. Says Potash, "According to our surveys, approximately one-third of users listen to the files on PCs, one-third download them to mp3 players, and one-third burn them to CDs . . . people want to download and listen in their car."

With so many free downloads coming through the NYPL site, there seems to be an opportunity for audio pirates to take advantage of the wide selection. Potash calls the OverDrive licensing agreement "pretty flexible," allowing borrowers to transfer the file an unlimited number of times within the loan period, but he doubts that this might lead to infringement violations—"just like you don't walk out of a video store with a stack of DVDs and try to burn them." When the files are downloaded to the borrower's PC, they are restricted by an encryption that allows only the registered borrower to access and transfer them. The files themselves discourage pirating, since one compressed eAudio file can expand to nearly 10 hours of sound and require several CDs to be burned. Still, Potash says that there is no way for OverDrive or the NYPL to monitor what the borrowers actually do with their download, and as a result, they rely on librariy users' license agreements (which prohibit commercial use) and the honesty of library patrons.

The NYPL's program is only nascent, but its ten-book limit and easily accessible downloads have the potential to make it an online audio book destination for borrowers across the country. Out-of-state patrons can purchase a NYPL membership for $100, giving them full access to eAudio.

The eAudio program indicates an exciting trend for public libraries, according to Potash, as they are "growing more and more in the delivery of digital media services." The NYPL is on the cutting edge of the trend; in addition to eAudio, users can access the popular eBooks program from home, as well as numerous reference and research databases. From the library to personal PCs to cardholders' cars, the library continues to break down its own walls and expand into users' daily lives.

(www.nypl.org; http://ebooks.nypl.org; www.overdrive.com)