Growing an e-book library

Because our school is in the midst of a 1:1 iPad implementation, it became critical to figure out how to deliver “library” books to students, and an e-library seemed an important way to reduce costs for students who might otherwise end up individually purchasing every reading title they need.

While our library has been experimenting with a variety of e-book offerings the last few years, finding a model that worked easily and well with the iPads was now important.  So among other things, we have chosen to try Overdrive’s e-library service which allows you to build an e-library that students can “check out” books from.

Overdrive has many limitations, but it’s the major player in the e-book market for 1:1 devices.   It’s fairly costly, only offers certain publishers, is an annual subscription (again, costly), and using it with Kindles or Nooks is a little complex. But with the iPad app, it’s a pretty easy implementation once the actual collection is built.

Students simply install the app, locate your library in the “Add a library” list, star it as a favorite, and then they are ready to borrow materials.  Much like Amazon, they put items in their cart, and “check out” of the store when done.  Books return themselves automatically when they are due, eliminating “overdues” as a concept.  Just like Mission Impossible (a reference lost on most of the students), the e-books dissolve in a puff of smoke on their “due date.”

Overdrive can also be used by any students with Nooks, Kindles, iPhones, and mp3 players as well, so it’s pretty flexible in terms of how students can retrieve a book.

I have learned lessons during the implementation process:

1.  Initial Implementation–
Overdrive charges an annual fee, half of which goes to new titles and half of which is a subscription fee.  Even taking into account both fees, that makes our average “cost” about $30 per book/audiobook, which since many of them are only in hardback release currently, isn’t an entirely unreasonable cost.  You do keep titles and then add more each year, but that half/half model continues.  If you quit Overdrive, currently, the titles purchased are “lost.” I think this is a model Overdrive needs to strongly reconsider as that is a deterrent, but I decided to think of it in terms of a subscription like a database, which we pay for annually.  In any case, you “fund” the account ahead of time, which does make purchasing easier.

Once you have committed to the service, it takes some advance time to implement Overdrive because as the librarian, you have to help develop the design of your custom site as well as developing the e-book and audiobook collection based on your school’s needs.

2.  Designing the site–
The first step is designing the look of the website and completing training sessions on purchasing.  Somewhat frustratingly, Overdrive controls the website design process, so there can be quite a bit of unnecessarily time-consuming back and forth as you design the look and feel of your site. Though many elements are common from one site to another, the overall look can be customized.  After a bit of frustrating design back and forth,  I finally “drew” a picture of the colors I wanted and eliminated having a masthead in the interest of getting the site to go “live”sooner.  Because there is an intermediary sales person between you and the web design team, things can get lost in translation and the quality of the design can be problematic.   The basic format of the design does look a lot like Amazon or other sites students will be familiar with, which is a plus.  But Overdrive does force a few features on the site which feel like advertising for Amazon, and I was disappointed those couldn’t be removed.

3.  Collection development —
The next step in implementing Overdrive is material selection.   While Overdrive has excellent training sessions on this, some of it doesn’t make complete sense until you actually are done and utilize the site, because once you use it, you see the reasons for some of the collection development decisions.  I think Overdrive could develop graphic materials (like charts that map your choices) that would make this more clear in guiding the initial collection development.   Initially, your Overdrive subscription gives you a set amount for purchasing books, but you can add individual titles over that amount.  So when you are purchasing, it generates a p.o. that “subtracts” your purchases from the already paid amount.  That makes purchasing quick as books can be added within 24 hours in the system.   Their Content Reserve site is easy enough, but it is pretty slow in terms of searching, and the speed of it needs to be improved.
a.  Book collection–  The device your students will be using matters.  In our case, students would mostly be using iPads.  Books come in different formats;  some are ONLY offered in Kindle editions, and some are offered in both Kindle and ePub formats.   Using the Kindle format is more cumbersome on the iPad because students have to take the further step of logging into Amazon after searching your library in order to actually download the book.  Also, Amazon keeps track of their check-outs, which is a privacy issue for libraries.   And if the book only comes in Kindle format, it prevents a large segment of your students from using those books if they have Nooks or other devices.   So I steered towards items that came in both formats, Kindle and ePub.
(But this was only something I realized after getting the collection going, so that’s one thing I wish I had paid more attention to, as I did end up with some Kindle only books).  Also, on the patron side, I think Overdrive still needs to work a little on the way the books are displayed on your library site, so that it is clear what format students are selecting because that appears in the “fine print” so to speak.
b.  Audiobook collection — Similarly, audiobooks come in two formats; WMA and MP3.  Audiobooks in WMA format obviously won’t play on i-Devices, so for our purposes, MP3 audiobooks make more sense.   Again, an element that didn’t register with me when I was purchasing the first few audiobooks, so I ended up with a couple of WMA only format audiobooks.

4.  Setting up patrons and check-out periods —
This process is relatively simple.  Overdrive can help you upload your student id numbers or account information, depending on what library software you use.  We have Follett Destiny, so we had to extract a file of student IDS and upload them to Overdrive.  Students aren’t identified in the system by name, only by their ID number in that case.  (This process seemed fairly easy but one of our IT staff actually did this step for us).

5. Going Live and Training
At that point you are ready to go “live” after completing a staff webinar training with Overdrive.  Overdrive does include a lot of training tutorials for students that are divided into short easy segments.   Of course, it’s important to demonstrate it to students as well, particularly in our 1:1 environment since all of us would be using the same device.  Publicity is key, and can tie into your public library offerings if they have Overdrive as well (which many of them do, but judging from the response of our students, it’s not something students are aware of.)  The implementation in a multi-device environment is of course much more challenging, so tutorials are very helpful.   And coincidentally, when I was visiting classes to introduce Overdrive (as well as our other e-book services), I discovered that one of our students actually created all the training videos for our local community library!  Check out her materials here.  Because there are so many formats, having tools like this for students is helpful.


The marketing of library e-books is still a “work in progress.”  This morning Joyce Valenza shared an interesting article from the Washington Post, “As Demand for E-books soars, Libraries struggle to fill their Digital Shelves” which is an excellent summary of the issues facing libraries when implementing Overdrive and other e-book solutions.  Often there won’t be enough titles to go around, since it’s cost prohibitive.

But as we all know, this is a rapidly evolving market.  Publishers are trying to figure out how to wrangle the electronic book market, (as music companies did a decade ago), librarians are trying to figure out how their services can be a choice in the offerings, salespeople are trying to market all sorts of solutions to librarians, and it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.  It’s critically important that librarians make their voices heard in this debate.  Vendors need to hear what we want, publishers need to hear from us as well (as they have been when Random House limited the number of check-outs of their e-books), and salespeople need to carry that message back from us to their companies.

For a further overview of all sorts of e-book offerings and issues, check out the new ALA title No Shelf Required 2 (Ala 2011) which collects essays by librarians across all service levels(myself included, I have to admit)  in discussions of e-books and issues surrounding them, along with specific examples of implementations.   (It does come in e-book format as well as print).  This isn’t a “sales” pitch 😉 as I have found the other essays extremely informed and helpful in understanding this market in terms of school, public, and academic library issues.

Now that we’ve implemented Overdrive, I’ll be following up later on how it’s being received by our students and how it dovetails with our iPad rollout overall.  But one thing is clear, though this model works pretty well, the entire market has a long evolution to go before it standardizes.  And the inconsistencies across services are creating headaches for libraries around the country until things do standardize more.





16 thoughts on “Growing an e-book library

  1. Carolyn, thank you for such a thoughtful and detailed post. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this journey as your implementation moves forward! Best, Buffy

  2. Excellent overview. I have to say my Follett reps who visit pretty regularly face to face, have dissed overdrive repeatedly. Of course their agenda is to get me to buy into Follett Shelf. (Don’t get me wrong, I do LOVE my Follett reps and will continue to be a valued and loyal customer.) So far I am immensely pleased with our Overdrive implementation. I may eventually decide to add some FollettShelf content to Destiny in hopes of meeting Common Core standards focus (nonficton) but our most popular ebook portal will still (in my mind) be the Overdrive ebook portal. we are not a 1:1 school. But our stats are showing its popularity even now, with a new burst of interest after kids returned form Christmas break, ereader devices in hand. 🙂

  3. Carolyn I can’t tell you how excited I am to read about your endeavor! Wow- what a great idea! I never knew this would even be possible…what a pioneer you are! Thanks for this inspiring blog post and information! ~phil G

  4. Cathy,

    We have some e-books with Follett Destiny and have an older Netlibrary collection as well. I haven’t looked into Follett Shelf but it’s also on my list of things to follow up on this spring. It’s difficult because you feel like you can only support so many platforms at once.
    Since Overdrive and Follett can both be embedded in the catalog, that helps make it a little more one-stop shopping but that requires librarian guidance I think(and promotion!)

  5. Hi Carolyn,

    We have launched Overdrive too this year with our staff and students. The Penguin move was very disappointing and our books can’t be read on Kindles yet as international agreements haven’t been reached yet. Despite this, I’m really pleased we have made the step into the ebook world. Our kids are excited and keep asking “is this free?” More and more of them have their own reading devices, and as we are a 1:1 laptop school, they can be read on their computers. I’m pleased that my library is making books accessible 24/7. My experience downloading books has been wonderful – I think I’ve read more fiction in the last three months than I have in the last two years! Let’s keep in contact and compare notes.


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