Millions of Americans now own Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers. And libraries are taking notice, expanding their collections of e-books they can loan to patrons.
That trend has 3M's attention. The company has a long history of serving libraries. And 3M sees a big business opportunity in helping libraries build, manage and lend their collections of electronic books.
The St. Paul Public Library next month will begin a formal trial of 3M's "Cloud Library" system, along with ten other major public libraries around the country.
For the past month, Stephanie Harr of St. Paul has been a volunteer tester of the 3M system. She reads a lot of books while getting her caffeine kick at the Swede Hollow Cafe on St. Paul's East Side. All she needs to get a book from the St. Paul library is her iPad and an Internet connection.
"So, this one is available. I just hit the check-out button. That little blue bar shows it's downloading into my device," Harr said. "So, when that's done, I can read it."
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Harr has had an e-reader for about two years and is glad to see the library expand its e-book collection.
"As a dedicated library user, I wasn't used to paying for books. So, as soon as the library started having e-books, I was on board right away."
Harr says she prefers the sign-up process and book browsing features of the 3M system to a competing service the library had used last spring. But she says otherwise the two services are pretty much the same.
CATCHING UP TO THE COMPETITION
From a business standpoint, 3M is behind. The company has been serving libraries for over 40 years, providing them with devices and software to check out physical books and protect them from theft. But an Ohio company called Overdrive already provides e-book services to 18,000 libraries in 21 countries.
Still, 3M sees an opening.
"Being a company with a strong technology history, we have an opportunity to really come in and innovate and create the best platform for libraries to lend e-books to a community," said Tom Mercer, who is leading the marketing efforts for 3M's Cloud Library service. At this time, e-books are just a small part of library collections. But Mercer says those collections will grow and libraries will need help managing them.
"We see a very large opportunity as libraries shift their spend from physical material to digital material," he said. "By about 2015, a third of all books sold will be digital in the United States."
With the 3M Cloud Library service, library patrons can read e-books on many portable devices including 3M-branded e-readers that libraries can loan to patrons.
But OverDrive has a head start and company spokesman David Burleigh says it's growing fast. "We had about 35 million checkouts through the system thorough all our libraries in the network last year, which was up from about 15 million the year before," Burleigh said.
Overdrive won't comment on 3M's intentions, but Burleigh says there's good reason to be bullish about the business opportunities to help libraries with e-book collections.
LIBRARIES BUILD DIGITAL COLLECTION
In Minnesota, most public libraries will stock e-books by mid-June, according to state librarian Nancy Walton.
The St. Paul Public Library started its e-book collection last April and now has about 4,500 e-books to lend.
Digital library manager John Larson expects e-books will eventually account for 10 to 20 percent of the St. Paul's book lending. There are advantages for both patrons and libraries, he said. E-books can't be damaged or lost. And patrons don't have to worry about returning them. "You don't have to worry about any overdue fines. It just automatically disappears at the end of the loan period," Larson said. "And you don't have to come to the library to pick them up. It just comes straight to you. If you've been waiting for it on hold. If it's available, you can check it out on the spot."
But that convenience may be offset by the refusal of some publishers to license their e-books to libraries. Still, there seems little doubt there will strong demand from libraries for e-reader technology. Market analysts at Forrester Research estimate that about 70 million Americans will be using some kind of e-reader by 2016.