It used to be that your options for borrowing books from your local library were hardbound or paperback.
Now you can log on to the Internet from your home computer and, using your library account, download an e-book to read or listen to on your computer or portable e-reader.
Add to these options audiobooks on CD and Playaway devices that you plug headphones into and take along for a jog in the park and you've got a variety of ways to enjoy a book.
E-books are increasing in popularity. The online retailer Amazon reported last week that sales of Kindle e-books outpaced hardcover books for the first time.
They're also a hot item at your local library. A countywide collection of 350 e-books and 1,350 audio e-books is in such high demand that most titles have multiple holds on them.
Here is a short introduction to where your local library is going with e-book technology.
What is an e-book?
An e-book is a digital file that can be read on an e-reader, computer or smartphone. An audio e-book is listened to on an iPod or other MP3 device.
What about an e-reader?
An e-reader, or e-book reader, is either a handheld device, or software downloaded to a computer, laptop, netbook or smartphone, that stores and reads e-books. Examples are the Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad, Sony Reader, and Barnes and Noble Nook, to name a few.
Two local libraries — Palm Harbor and East Lake — have Kindle e-readers for borrowing.
Can I get e-books for free?
As a Pinellas county resident, you can access the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative's growing e-book collection, available through your local library website.
The Web also has many sources of e-books for free and for sale. The library cooperative has a list of recommended sources at www.pplc.us. Your local library also offers a service called Netlibrary, which offers 29,000 e-books — mostly nonfiction — that can be read on a computer screen.
How do I borrow an e-book?
Once inside your library website portal, you'll need to download Overdrive software, which allows you to place the e-book on your computer. You can read it there or transfer the file to an e-reader or MP3 device.
Does an e-book need to be returned like a physical book?
No. The file expires on the due date, so there are never late fees.
What are Playaway devices?
These are preloaded digital audio books. They are smaller and lighter than a deck of cards and contain a single e-book title. You plug your own headphones in, and return it like a regular book by its due date. These can be checked out at most area libraries, though titles are very limited. Playaways will most likely be phased out in a matter of years as more people purchase iPods and MP3 devices, local librarians say.
What do my library's e-books cost?
The Pinellas cooperative is spending $37,500 on e-books this year and next. Each of the cooperative's 15 local libraries also may have purchased small numbers of e-books. In comparison, last year the St. Petersburg Public Library spent $603,000 for all reading materials, DVDs and music and book CDs in all seven of its branches.
Is the library of the future one with no paper books?
At the moment, old-fashioned books are still the most circulated items, but demand for e-books is growing. "We anticipate the need to grow the (e-book) collection as users become more familiar with the format and acquire the reading devices," said Mary Brown, executive director of the Pinellas cooperative. In St. Petersburg, there are 563,000 print books and about 1,600 items of downloadable digital media on the website. E-books are checked out as soon as they're returned, said the manager of the main and branch libraries Elaine Birkinshaw.
"Our users obviously love this," she said.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.