A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

A Practical, Public-Service Approach to E-Books

by Erin Kelsey, Mandy Knapp, & Meredith Richards on April 25, 2013

Worthington (Ohio) Libraries has been a member of Digital Downloads, formerly known as the Mid-Ohio Library Digital Initiative, since 2006. We, the authors, are members of the public service staff and work with e-books in a variety of ways: helping patrons inside the library, planning e-book and e-reader programs, and training our colleagues on e-readers.

In the past year, our library system has seen a dramatic increase in the use of e-books and e-readers. Circulation of e-books is 131 percent higher now than it was in 2010, with the most notable increase occurring when Amazon’s Kindle was made compatible with OverDrive, our e-book vendor. In direct correlation to this rise in e-book circulation, the number of patrons with questions about the library’s e-book collection rose dramatically. We’ll share with you the practical, hands-on way we’ve dealt with this increase and also what we’ve learned along the way.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we want to point out that currently only one of us owns an e-reader and uses it personally. We do this to dispel the myth that you have to own an e-reader to be an expert in its use. E-books and e-readers are changing the way people access information. It’s important for all library professionals to acknowledge this shift, learn more about how e-readers work, and understand how their proliferation will impact the future of the libraries.

Helping Patrons inside the Library

Worthington Libraries has high customer service standards. All staff members go through customer service training, and assessing customer service skills is part of the annual performance review process. With the growing popularity of e-books and ereaders comes a new set of customer service challenges. E-book and e-reader technology is in a constant state of flux; new devices, new procedures, and new problems are continually introduced.

For librarians and library support staff to stay ahead of the game, staff training on e-book services and devices is essential. Administrators at Worthington Libraries realized this and formed a work group to design patron and staff training programs. This work group was named the Technology Petting Zoo Task Force––the “petting zoo” name was meant to convey a sense of playful learning (and was originally coined by our friends at the Washington-Centerville Public Library). The members of this team soon became affectionately known as “zookeepers.”

Helping patrons with e-books and e-readers can be intimidating for staff. To provide the best customer service, staff must be made comfortable with this technology and have up-to-date information to use as reference. At each Worthington Libraries information desk, there is a binder with tips and troubleshooting advice for each of the major e-readers on the market. It includes step-by-step guides for downloading e-books using the OverDrive app (for tablet computers, smartphones, iPads, and iPod Touch) and using Adobe Digital Editions. The guides include screenshots and detailed descriptions of the download process. When Amazon’s Kindles became compatible with OverDrive, the Technology Petting Zoo Task Force worked quickly to learn the process and create a step-by-step guide to use as a reference. Zookeepers also developed a list of website links (some of which are included in the sidebar on page 45) to help with the download process and troubleshooting.

Zookeepers regularly add information as technology changes and troubleshooting solutions arise. Information is also available on a shared staff drive so it can be accessed electronically. We also encourage staff to share news articles about devices and patron interactions that led to a troubleshooting lesson or tip. So that it’s always current, helpful information is simultaneously added to both the physical binder and electronic file. A goal of the Technology Petting Zoo Task Force is to get everyone comfortable with the e-readers and the setup process. We also want our colleagues to feel comfortable asking questions and encourage staff to share what they’ve learned.

When assisting people with e-reader setup and the digital downloads process, it’s important to manage expectations. To set up an e-reader to download library e-books, it’s often a multistep process that involves downloading software to a home computer. According to a recent study, people ages 30 to 49 are most likely to own an e-reader, with people ages 50 to 64 in a close second.1 Because of this wide age range, comfort level and knowledge of technology can vary wildly with every interaction.

When someone needs help with an e-reader, staff explains the download process to make sure each person understands that, although the setup process can be frustrating, the day-to-day use of an e-reader is simple and easy to learn. In cases where people ask for assistance but do not have the proper equipment with them (cords, a laptop, etc.) to begin the setup process, we help by demonstrating how to access and use the e-book catalog and begin the setup process at home. And, we’re only a phone call or instant message away if they need help from home.

Answering questions about e-readers over the phone or through instant messaging can be challenging, however, as you can’t actually see what’s causing trouble. Our recommendation is to ask specific questions about the computer operating system and device so you have as much information as possible. Frequently, Googling a problem or specific error message is an effective way to find a solution to the problem. Of course, the key for this type of interaction is to be understanding and calm (because the caller is very likely frustrated) and provide resources to solve their problem if you are not able to do so over the phone. Troubleshooting e-readers and e-books over the phone does not always end successfully, but it’s a great way to go above and beyond for your patrons and truly be a support system.

It’s very common for patrons to bring their devices to the library and ask staff to assist them with the digital downloads process. Sometimes, they come to the library directly from purchasing their new e-reader with it still sealed in the box! In fact, there have been many instances where personnel at the bookstore or electronics store told them to go to the library to get their e-readers set up. This can be a delicate process as patrons often want a staff member to hold their device and complete the download process for them. While our goal is to help patrons to the best of our ability, we have a policy that staff cannot touch a patron’s device or download software for them. Like most other technology reference questions, it is best to act as a guide during the process. This helps the patron learn the process by doing it, and troubleshooting questions can be answered along the way.

Staff should always keep in mind that what may be second nature for someone with lots of computer and e-book experience may be very difficult for another person to understand. Trying anything for the first time is a learning experience, and the setup process for acquiring library e-books on a personal electronic device is sometimes a confusing endeavor, requiring the registration of the device, registration of the software used to transfer files to the device, and establishing a digital books account with the library. Library staff should take care to be patient with patrons who do not immediately grasp what is being asked of them, and to provide a welcoming and understanding environment in which to learn. Learning how to download and transfer e-books can be the cause of much frustration, so it is imperative that staff remain calm and helpful.

Programs for Patrons

In 2010, Worthington Libraries purchased the Amazon Kindle 2, the Sony Reader, the Nook, iPod Nanos, and iPads with the intention of using them for staff and public instruction. The Technology Petting Zoo committee recommended the purchase of three of each device, so each of our three locations could have a set of devices for staff training and public programs.

The first Technology Petting Zoo for the public was held in September 2010. Staff spent the weeks leading up to the event learning to use each device and the library’s Digital Downloads catalog, powered by OverDrive. The program was designed so patrons could try out e-readers, iPods, and iPads with library staff present to answer questions about device functionality and compatibility with the library’s digital offerings. Each device had a designated table with a sign and a dedicated staff member assigned to answer questions and demonstrate how it worked. We partnered with Best Buy for this event, and they provided representatives from their Geek Squad to demonstrate popular smartphones. The program was an overwhelming success, with more than fifty people attending the four-hour event. Many commented on how helpful and enjoyable it was.

Because the first event was so successful, the library held a second Technology Petting Zoo in early December 2010. This time, we partnered with Sprint for phone and GameStop for gaming system demonstrations. Eighty-five people turned out for the second event, which was two hours long. Many attendees were holiday shoppers who wanted a “try before you buy” experience for the devices they were interested in purchasing.

Since these events were well-received, we decided to expand the number of technology and e-book programs we offered. Worthington Libraries continues to offer Technology Petting Zoos in addition to opportunities for patrons to learn how to use devices in a classroom style setting. In the past year, we’ve held instructional events for those interested in getting library e-books and audiobooks on their iPods, iPads, phones, and e-readers, as well as Technology Petting Zoos designed for teens and younger children just learning to read. Having offered several different kinds of programs, we now have a better idea of what people are looking for and how to best introduce them to the e-book lending process.

Most important to the success of a technology-related program is to know one’s audience. Staff in charge of planning and presenting at an event will benefit from understanding the demographics of those most likely to attend. At the majority of our events, attendees were mostly in their thirties or older, with varying degrees of computer literacy. The classroom-style training attracted those who felt more comfortable learning to download e-books in a supportive environment, with library staff close at hand should they encounter any difficulty. We discovered smaller class sizes worked best as many people had limited experience with technology and computers, and benefited from one-on-one assistance.

Technology Petting Zoos could accommodate much larger numbers of people than classes. These events were more relaxed and designed to give people a brief first look at how the technology works. One staffer to every seven patrons was a manageable ratio for our Zoos, whereas at least one staffer to every four patrons for a class is recommended.

Managing patron expectations is another major component of conducting a successful program. All promotional items (fliers, posters, calendar listings) should include a detailed description of the program. We used words like “sample,” “hands-on,” and “examine,” to make it obvious the program was about trying different devices and not a tutorial or troubleshooting session. When we offered instructional classes, the descriptions read, “let us show you how” or “bring your device.” Being as specific as possible helps patrons prepare for the event and get the most out of their participation (so if the event requires attendees to bring their devices, USB cables, and library cards, the description should say so).

When conducting a class, the presenter must provide clear instructions to attendees on how to participate (when to ask questions, what to do if something goes wrong, and so on). When Worthington Libraries offers tutorials for how to get library e-books on devices, it works well to have one staff person as the presenter and at least one additional staff person walking from person to person, answering questions and troubleshooting. This way, if someone gets stuck, the class can continue while staff quietly works with them on whatever issue they have encountered.

Flexibility is an important skill to have when running any library program and it is key to holding a successful e-book event. Staff can only wield so much control over the composition of the program. If the library is offering a class called “How to get library e-books on your Kindle,” and everyone shows up with Sony Readers and Nooks, staff need to be trained and prepared to scrap their plans and do their best to help patrons with whatever device they have. Similarly, if only a few people come with the wrong device, staff should offer those people the option of remaining after the program to get additional help with their gadgets.

It is important to remember these new technologies are continuously evolving and new gadgets hit the market every few weeks. Library staff should be future-oriented when it comes to learning how to use these devices. It takes an active effort to learn new technologies and adapt to changes to continue to best serve our communities and their changing needs.

Staff Training

As part of a large consortium of libraries jointly purchasing our shared e-book collection, our public service staff does not have much to do with the selection of e-books, but we do field a lot of questions about their availability and use. Our population, as indicated by our circulation statistics, has been quick to embrace e-books and e-readers. Although all staff members have been trained on e-readers, in-depth questions from patrons about e-readers and e-books are mostly handled by the adult services and, to some extent, youth services departments. Thus, members of those departments received additional training.

In addition to planning events for patrons in the library, the aforementioned Technology Petting Zoo Task Force was charged with training staff on new and emerging technologies. The group decided to focus on e-readers (because, well, this is a library after all). The group discussed the best way to train staff in the use of the purchased devices and decided a Technology Petting Zoo would be just as beneficial for staff as they had been for patrons, providing them with the opportunity to experiment with the devices in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere.

To accomplish this, the zookeepers held an initial round of five Technology Petting Zoos for staff, with two supplementary events for those who could not attend the first round. These events were mandatory for staff members at all levels of the organization from managers to circulation aides. By providing training to all staff members, we increased organizational knowledge of an important service we provide and made it easier for staff at all levels to help patrons.

In planning these events, it’s important to make them relaxed and less formal than a traditional classroom setting. Representative of the general population, staff members, too, are often overwhelmed by new technology and experience a fear of change that can be expressed as resistance or apathy. By emphasizing the touch and play aspect of the training, the need to find the “right” answer is lessened. Try your best to make the experience as fun and relaxing as possible.

The next step in our process was to identify staff members who were e-reader experts because they owned a device or had previous training (one of our employees also worked part-time at our local Barnes & Noble and was our Nook expert). After this list was compiled, it was distributed to all staff so everyone knew where to direct questions and get expert advice about using a particular device. One set of devices was kept at each library location and made available for staff to check out during his or her free time.

The greatest challenge in training staff in the use of e-books and e-readers is rapidly changing technology. It’s difficult and often costly to put forth a great effort in creating staff training materials when the landscape may change in six months. As the devices continue to evolve, staff training must be a continual process. As was mentioned earlier, the zookeepers created binders of information on e-readers and reproduced that information electronically for easy access. In addition to this, one-on-one trainings with personalized attention are often the best way to bring the least skilled staff member up to speed. This reduces the pressure to know the right answer to questions, which can be intimidating in a classroom setting surrounded by peers and coworkers.

Further, one of our enterprising department managers has built e-book training into her team’s monthly meetings. Every meeting, one member of the team brings in a new e-reader and discusses it’s compatibility with the library’s collection. Deliberately making this an ongoing process ensures the latest changes in technology will be communicated to staff in a timely manner. Integrate relevant updates to ebook technology as part of regular communications to staff.

It is important to emphasize that the skills public service staff worked so hard to cultivate in the pre-e-book era are still applicable, only the platform is  different. When staff members feel overwhelmed by swiftly changing technologies, they may react negatively or apathetically. If the download and transfer process is broken down into manageable parts, they will gain a sense of mastery and control over the situation. Positive feelings will move staff to greater degrees of competency. Use the staff’s existing skills to move this along. For example, if you have someone who is excellent at reader’s advisory, ask him or her for best practices with e-book reader’s advisory. This will not only give you a set of best practices for the rest of the staff, but also emphasize that existing skills and passions are still relevant in the digital environment.


There is every indication that the growth of e-books and e-readers will continue. Barnes & Noble and Amazon have both released new devices in the past year and, along with Apple, are vying for control of the market. It is absolutely imperative that the library community embrace this growing trend and make every effort to assist patrons with questions about ebooks and e-readers. This is not a matter of personal preference, but a matter of the library maintaining its relevance as a valuable community asset in a changing environment. While rapid changes, such as the rise in popularity of digital books, can be intimidating, it also presents an excellent opportunity for libraries to reconnect with their communities. The nature of a library is, and has always been, a place for people to have access to information. The proliferation of e-books and an everevolving technologically proficient society means that people are flocking to their public libraries with new questions and new needs. By welcoming this change, libraries are taking an important step to ensure they will be valued far into the future. This will be a challenge for libraries, but the zookeepers think librarians are up for it!


  1. Kristin Purcell, “E-Reader Ownership Doubles in Six Months,” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, June 27, 2011, accessed Nov. 11, 2011.