The Ramsey County library in Roseville circulates more materials than any public library in Minnesota. But you might not know that by looking at it.
"We've hit a tipping point where we now have more virtual visits than physical visits in the library," said Susan Nemitz, director of the Ramsey County library system, a key testing ground for the new, electronic public library.
Print is still the backbone of library traffic with e-books and other digital material checkouts accounting for only about five percent of circulation, Nemitz said. But the Ramsey County system, like libraries across the Twin Cities, is starting to see declines in print circulation, and significant growth in e-book circulation.
The popularity of e-books and other online research and learning materials has been rising in recent years at libraries as phones, tablets and their mobile applications made borrowing easier.
Metro-area libraries are using two e-lending systems: Ohio-based Overdrive and 3M's Cloud Library.
The new phone and tablet apps are bringing in more readers than original download technology, said David Burleigh, an executive with Overdrive, which offers about 1.8 million titles to libraries around the world.
"It happened a lot quicker than anybody really expected. And now it's maybe 60 percent of the traffic and circulation that's going through a mobile app," said Burleigh.
Tom Mercer, marketing manager for 3M's Cloud Library, said public libraries offer a much bigger service to readers than lending technology. They curate free collections of new and relevant books and help local readers navigate to the best resources.
"Libraries have done a good job of buying front list, what's exciting, what's new. The day it's released it's probably going to be at your library," said Mercer. "And they still do a really good job of that."
Mercer said a half million patrons have borrowed about 3 million books this year across 3M's online system in the U.S. and Canada.
Overdrive said Minneapolis and its suburbs rank 5th in size in the nation for ebook lending. In Hennepin County alone, library officials expect people to check out one million e-books this year, compared to a typical total annual circulation of 16 million.
People of all ages and backgrounds are reading e-books, said Michele McGraw, information services manager for Hennepin County Library.
"We know students in the schools in their classrooms are using e-books and they come to us for additional copies. People reading recreationally, people looking for biography and memoir, for cookbooks, are coming to us," said McGraw.
Kirk Pederson, a Richfield library patron, said improved online access helped him shift to e-books for his fiction reading. He said it's convenient to not have to go to the library.
"I'd say right now I probably do about 75 percent e-books, 25 percent hard copy," Pederson said.
But Shawn Barnhart, who also uses Hennepin County library, said e-book borrowing has gotten easier but he prefers paper. The Minneapolis resident said he's buying more used books as the internet has made them cheaper and easy to find.
"Visually, they're easier on my eyes in some ways, and you know the selection of titles in paper is a lot larger than electronic titles," said Barnhart.
3M's Mercer said the company is seeing libraries investing in more e-book titles as they observe that readers are checking them out.
"Physical books are always going to be part of the library but digital books are going to continue growing as librarians see if we put dollars in this, people will use it," said Mercer. "And there have to be enough books in the digital collection for it to be interesting for a user."
In Ramsey County, Nemitz said librarians are beginning to notice different borrowing patterns in e-books.
"It does change what people check out," said Remitz. "It's very hard to check out "Divorce for Dummies" in front of your neighbor."
She said the library does not collect data from individual library users so they do not know specifically who is checking out material digitally, and whether they read it.
"We don't know how people use our print collection either," said Nemitz. "It's never been a requirement that people read the whole book and I'm one who tends to tell people if you don't like it just return it."