Ebooks, Streaming Resources Grow as Libraries Close Branches

Demand for popular ebooks, digital audiobooks, comics, music, and streaming video has spiked as library branches close and patrons are asked to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Demand for popular ebooks, digital audiobooks, comics, music, and streaming video has spiked as library branches close and patrons are asked to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, hoopla last week announced that more than 1,100 “Bonus Borrows” selections would be temporarily free to lend on its pay-per-circ model, and OverDrive has waived fees through June for its Instant Digital Card (IDC) service, enabling libraries to sign up new patrons remotely. Library Ideas began offering no-contract, month-to-month subscriptions for its Freegal music service, as well as temporary, free upgrades to 24-hour per day streaming for existing library customers for the next six months. Publishers including Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and dozens of others announced temporary discounts, reduced cost-per-circ pricing, and other special offers for ebooks, audiobooks, and other electronic content.

More than 30 new library systems and consortia have adopted the Instant Digital Card recently, bringing the total to 70 libraries that have signed up 25,000 new library patrons remotely in March alone, David Burleigh, director of brand marketing and communication for Rakuten OverDrive, told LJ.

Even in the earliest stages of branch closures, vendors were seeing increased demand for electronic content. Tom Mercer, SVP of digital products for bibliotheca, on March 19th told LJ that bibliotheca’s cloud library had experienced 164 percent more downloads that week than the prior week, and that 60 percent more holds were placed on the 18th, compared to the prior Wednesday.

“We're reacting to it,” Mercer said. “We're busier than we've ever been” helping libraries launch the cloud library platform or expand digital collections.

Brian Downing, CEO of Library Ideas, said that “there has been a substantial increase in interest in our digital products, especially Freegal due to the 24 hour streaming upgrade and the at-will contract." He added that the company was "very proud of our licensing partners" for helping libraries by quickly making these terms possible. By comparison, sales of Vox Books, the company's line of physical read-alongs, have slowed as branches have closed, which Downing said was not surprising. In addition to a 15 percent discount on orders of physical materials placed this month, Library Ideas is also holding shipments on request until its customers are ready to reopen.

At OverDrive, Burleigh said it was too early to provide numbers on circulation increases linked specifically to COVID-19 closures, but told LJ last week that “libraries and librarians are seeing daily records in circulation, holds, and onboarding new users” for ebooks and other electronic content in recent days. Juvenile fiction and nonfiction have led these increases, he said, perhaps because schools have closed.

Many libraries have been proactive with digital collections management as branches have closed, he added, curating shelves and surfacing backlist titles that are currently available and of interest, and making some frontlist titles available on a first come, first served basis using OverDrive’s “lucky day” feature.

“Hundreds of libraries have created always-available collections—with the low-cost and no-cost catalogs now available—and are effectively using curation and the lucky day feature to increase choice and reduce barriers for first-time users,” Burleigh said.

Other general strategies include highlighting staff-selected backlist titles with one-ebook, one-user licenses; taking advantage of special offers that publishers have recently announced; surfacing per-circ collections and raising patron checkout limits on that content; and lifting restrictions on borrowers, such as enabling patrons with overdue fees to access streaming content or borrow ebooks.

“A lot of libraries are calling in to eliminate restrictions and make sure that everyone has a chance to download,” Mercer said. “They’re [also] raising holds limits.”

Jeff Jankowski, hoopla founder and VP of its parent company Midwest Tape, noted that his company had also been “extraordinarily busy,” with staff now working remotely to onboard libraries new to the service. hoopla’s Bonus Borrows collection of more than 1,100 free titles was curated with a view toward patrons staying home due to COVID-19, with a mix of top circulating titles, as well as content about stress management and meditation, cooking, home fitness, children’s entertainment and education.

“We wanted to build a mindful collection, focused on [content] that would be of interest to families,” Jankowski said.

Hoopla’s instincts appear to be correct. According to the results of a tracking poll published last week by Morning Consult and The Hollywood Reporter, only 15 percent of Americans say they’d be likely to watch dystopian films or shows at home right now. Most are looking for more lighthearted content, with 70 percent of adults more likely to watch comedies, followed by “action/adventure (63 percent), drama (58 percent), thriller/mystery (56 percent) and documentaries (53 percent).”


Patrick Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), OH, said that the library had seen expanded use of electronic resources after announcing that branches would be temporarily closed beginning Friday, March 13. CML has continued to highlight those resources in social media campaigns and in email updates about the library’s status during the outbreak.

However, Losinski added that the digital divide continues to pose a major barrier to access, and that the current crisis has made it evident that public libraries cannot adequately address this broader societal issue. CML did not have a Wi-Fi hotspot lending program prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, but Losinski noted that most major systems that offer these programs might have a maximum of 300 to 400 hotspots in circulation—programs that are insufficient to have entire cities suddenly switch to online classes or encourage parents to use online educational resources for children stuck at home, for example.

“I honestly don't think we can make much of a dent,” in terms of ensuring broadband access, he said. CML has continued to offer access to Wi-Fi outside of library buildings, he said, but the digital divide, “is one of the things we’re going to find to be exposed” during the pandemic. “Federal and state leaders will really begin to understand how unprepared [municipalities] are for online instruction.”

And as branch closures begin extending into a third week, some libraries are already working to strike a balance as online lending grows. The New York Public Library recently announced a limit for ebooks of three current checkouts and three current holds at a time.

“As a result of the Library’s temporary closure, we have already seen a surge in our ebook usage and anticipate further increases,” NYPL’s website explains. “In order to maintain the best possible service for the greatest number of users, we have therefore placed a new limit on ebook checkouts as a way to increase the number of books available and reduce wait times for all patrons. This includes checkouts through the Library’s main e-reader app, SimplyE, as well as through other apps used to access NYPL e-books, such as Overdrive/Libby and Cloud Library.”

As Downing noted, the field is working hard to adjust to these new conditions. "I can’t believe how hard public librarians work, I am getting emails at 11pm at night," he said. "Overseas, where 30% of our business is, we are seeing libraries expand their footprint to the level of the busiest USA libraries."

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Matt Enis



Matt Enis (matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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