Demand for e-books through Auckland Library’s online portal Libby is higher than ever. Image: Tina Tiller
Demand for e-books through Auckland Library’s online portal Libby is higher than ever. Image: Tina Tiller

BooksOctober 27, 2021

How does a library run out of e-books?

Demand for e-books through Auckland Library’s online portal Libby is higher than ever. Image: Tina Tiller
Demand for e-books through Auckland Library’s online portal Libby is higher than ever. Image: Tina Tiller

Auckland’s 56 libraries are closed, and no one knows when they’ll re-open. Devouring e-books online seems like a solution. For many, like my son, it’s not.

He staggers around the house. He mopes along the hallway. He lies on his bed and stares at the ceiling. This is my son in lockdown, sans books. At age 11, he can cope seeing his friends outside, one-at-a-time. He can deal with shut schools, online learning and Zoom music lessons. He even takes mid-morning screen breaks to make his own snack packs and bounce on the trampoline.

In short, he’s a good kid – and a voracious reader. In normal times, he wakes up and falls asleep to books. Two, three, five, sometimes 10 in a day. Our multiple library cards are often maxed out. Every few days, we drag bags of old books to the library, and exchange them for new ones. My son recently told our local librarian he’d read all the books there. She walked him around the shelves, offering random selections. She couldn’t tempt him with anything. Now we have to drive to different libraries to mix things up.

Yet, here in Tāmaki Makaurau, the libraries have been shut since we went into lockdown back in August. That’s 10 weeks spent adrift. Take books away from my son, and he’s a shell of a human. Unable to dream of faraway places, his brain is an an unlit bonfire urgently needing a match. He’s lost.

He’s not the only one. A recent Change.org petition demands Auckland Libraries offer a click-and-collect service. “Auckland kids need access to print books. There are many online options but many of us want less and not more screen time for our kids,” the petition reads. “I think the library could have done a lot more,” writes one signatory. “I think Aucklanders would benefit from this service in lockdown,” says another. At the time of writing, the petition’s been signed by more than 100 people. I bet most of them are parents.

To solve the issue, we turned to e-books through the library’s Libby app. But digital books are in such high demand they’re becoming as unavailable as their print counterparts. A recent press release boasted the library’s online checkouts have doubled during lockdown. What’s popular? All my son’s favourites: Harry Potter, Lucky Luke and The Hunger Games series. But it’s no help to to him if they keep disappearing off the digital shelves.

What else can we do? To answer that question, I called Catherine Leonard, Auckland’s head of library and learning services. She has some ideas to calm the frazzled nerves of parents like me…

Kia ora Catherine. Let’s start with the e-book phenomenon. Why can’t my son seem to get any books on his iPad via Libby?

They are being used at an amazing rate and they are flying off the shelves. What we’re seeing this lockdown, as opposed to the March-April one last year, is that children’s books have been really popular. It could be a combination of things: this [lockdown] has gone on longer, we’ve been in lockdown over a school holiday period … the longer it goes on, the more desperate parents are to find distractions and places of entertainment.

Why do e-books become unavailable online? Surely there are infinite amounts of them?

It is really hard for most people to get their heads around. They’ll say exactly what you have said: “If it’s electronic, why on Earth can’t I just get it right now?” [But] the e-book world and e-publishing is very much like traditional publishing … it really is a copy per person. A publisher will provide an e-copy and for a library to provide multiple access they have to buy multiple e-copies. It is kind of weird and for libraries it’s a bit frustrating because the model hasn’t moved that much in the digital world.

Are you monitoring the demand for e-books and purchasing the rights to loan more of them when necessary?

We monitor that supply daily. At the moment, my specialist is probably monitoring it hourly. We can actually up the supply very quickly in a way that takes longer in a print world. If we see demand spiking we can purchase additional copies immediately, and they’re available immediately. We’re flexing our budget all the time … trying to meet demand and lower those hold ratios as much as we can.

Do you think everyone will go back to physical books when lockdowns ease? Or is the demand for e-books here to stay?

The demand for e-books has been on an upward trajectory for a number of years. It’s never really plateaued. The lockdowns have seen spikes and they haven’t dropped off significantly. We’ve got a lot of library customers who are desperate for their e-books and I completely understand that. I do think in this very unknown world that we’re in now what we’re aware of this ongoing reluctance to be in public spaces, even when we can re-open our libraries. It will take a while for people to feel comfortable coming back and browse for books.

Now that Auckland’s in level 3.1, why can’t the libraries offer a click-and-collect service like other businesses?

Public libraries aren’t permitted to open. That’s really clear in the government guidelines. The discussion around whether we can safely operate a click-and-collect service is absolutely live. As librarians we feel really conflicted around the competing priorities. The overwhelming priority for Auckland Council is to limit the spread of community cases of Covid-19 and promote the safety of Aucklanders. Are we permitted to, and could we offer, a click-and-collect (service) under these current conditions” [The answer] is quite complex.

We have to think about that overriding commitment to limiting spread. We’re also thinking about equitable access, because we know that not everyone can read online. We do have customers who are desperate to get a bag of books. We know it’s really hard and we’re having these conversations. At the moment, we’re waiting to see what this traffic light framework might mean for us. We’re in a bit of a wait-and-see.

Thanks Catherine. Lastly, is there anything my son can do to get his hands on more e-books and save his brain while this lockdown continues?

Just put the holds on. When we see the holds go up and the demands increase, we purchase more copies. The other thing about [e-books] is people consume them really quickly. They churn through the check outs really quickly.

*

The day after our interview, I told my son about what Catherine Leonard had said. He immediately logged onto Libby and pushed the hold button for as many of his favourite titles as he could find. A few hours later, she was proved correct – a new Lucky Luke book that he hadn’t read came through. He smiled, sat down, and ripped through it in 15 minutes.

It might be the most peaceful 15 minutes of lockdown we’ve had.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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