A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Balancing Patron Demand for All Formats

by Vickery Bowles & Linda Hazzan on April 25, 2013

E-business is booming at the Toronto Public Library (TPL). Like most North American organizations dealing in books––whether that’s libraries, booksellers, publishers, or online retailers––we’re experiencing exponential growth in demand for e-books, and the popularity of the format doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. And while publishers and booksellers see many of the same issues that are facing libraries in terms of adapting their businesses in the age of the e-book, there are some challenges unique to libraries in terms of meeting e-book demand and positioning ourselves strategically for the long term as we adapt to the changes––and opportunities––that new technologies and new customer demands are creating.

E-Book Growth

E-book growth is not offsetting traditional book use and the popularity of multiple formats continues to grow. At TPL in 2011, use of our e-book and e-audiobook collections was up 103 percent over 2010, and by the end of 2011 we surpassed the 500,000 circulation mark for e-book downloads. Still, even with this exponential growth in e-circulation, this represents only 1.5 percent of TPL’s overall circulation (which is seeing growth for its third straight year).

So there is still great demand for print materials, while at the same time demand continues to increase for other formats, both established and emerging. And that is one of the biggest challenges facing libraries everywhere––increased demand overall, continued demand for traditional books while at the same time there is an explosion of online resources, increased availability of alternate format materials such as audiobooks and graphic novels, and emerging formats such as downloadable e-content. And then of course in Toronto’s case, there continues to be great demand for a multitude of languages, with requests for new languages all the time. At TPL, we actively collect in forty languages, and are regularly adjusting our mix to accommodate new ones.

We also see that, for more and more titles, there are multiple formats available. With last year’s release of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, for instance, we ordered the standard book, the talking book for the print-disabled, the large-print book, the audiobook, and the e-audiobook. And this year, with The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, we have it as a standard book, a large-print book, an audiobook, and an e-book. For some titles, it’s becoming more common to release the formats simultaneously with the book. For example, when The Lost Symbol was released, we bought eight hundred copies of the print version and then we bought copies in large-print, e-book, e-audiobook, audiobook, and talking book formats. And all are popular!

The popularity of both traditional and emerging formats makes sense. For Torontonians, already a city of readers, e-books are sparking new and renewed interest in the written word. An e-book is still a book––it is just offered in a different, very convenient “container,” and digital or downloadable content simply provides another option for people, helping to extend the availability of published materials. An easy read obtained through an impulse download from your couch on a rainy Saturday night, or the classic pre-loaded for free on your e-reader that you’ve been meaning to read or reread, very much appeals to the serious and casual reader alike.

So, in the mid-term, we expect to see more of what we are experiencing now; that is, significant growth in the availability and use of e-books, and continued use and demand for the traditional book. In the longer term, e-books will become a mainstream format. We see that process unfolding now.

Demand vs. Budget

So how do we meet growing public demand (a good thing) for new and different formats, with tighter and tighter material acquisition budgets? While the growing popularity of e-books is definitely good for business, it’s certainly having its impact on our budgets, especially in the current climate of fiscal constraint that so many public libraries are struggling with. To manage this demand, TPL is taking several approaches.

Although circulation is up at TPL in pretty much all areas of print materials, one notable exception is in mass market paperbacks––the same trend that has been reported by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study group.1 At TPL, we are also seeing some decline in the use of compact discs, albeit to a lesser extent (1.2 million borrows per year). So these declines have certainly helped us to offset our e-book purchasing by reducing our spending in these areas. Still, more needs to be done.

Another way that we are looking to manage our e-book costs is through the exploration of different pricing models with publishers. For example, through patron-driven acquisitions, which have been available in the academic community for some time.

With the release of new e-readers and e-reading devices such as the iPad, staff members are increasingly being asked to provide tech support and tech purchase recommendations, in addition to their reference and reader’s advisory roles. Some vendors provide training opportunities for staff, but this one time or occasional training doesn’t accommodate the frequent release of new devices, and the increasing rate by which the public is adopting them.

At TPL, we are addressing these pressures, in part, through innovative internal training programs such as Tech Days and iKits. On Tech Days, we bring together internal technology and online expertise from throughout our organization––staff from the IT and eServices departments, from Collections Management, and other staff throughout the organization who have an affinity for new technology and are happy to share their knowledge. We gather all the newest gadgetry we can––some purchased for the purpose of training, some already in use in the branches, and some personal devices from staff. And then we invite staff for the day to try the equipment and applications, ask questions, and get demonstrations from our “experts.” The days are fun and interactive, and full of learning.

We have also purchased a limited number of iKits––small collections of portable devices including e-readers, tablets, and netbooks––and distribute them to library staff in our branches for them to try out, learn, to support customers, and to use as part of their day-to-day work.

Limited E-Content

Lots of people want to borrow e-books, but do we have the e-books they want to borrow? We know that e-books are the future, or at least a major part of it, but right now the reality is that content is limited, and that will limit growth. In Canada, libraries simply can’t buy the same range of titles that we can buy in print.

Despite the growing adoption of the e-book format with publishers, it’s not news that e-books are making them nervous as they struggle to find sustainable business models, in particular with libraries. There are still major publishing houses that are not making their titles available for lending and in Canada we have only recently started to see an increase in the availability of more Canadian titles.

Navigating the Landscape

Libraries understand better than most how important it is to have a vibrant, healthy successful publishing industry––for publishers, vendors, and authors. So we as libraries need to work with publishers and vendors to navigate the changing and evolving landscape. Through organizations such as the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC), public libraries are advocating for better access to e-books and, as a result, we are gradually seeing more Canadian content for our customers. And as mentioned earlier, we continue to explore pricing and lending models that will work for the success of all.

Another avenue we are exploring is making the library’s website––and more specifically our catalog––a gateway to publishers to generate e-book sales. These kinds of promotional and affiliate sales opportunities can clearly benefit both parties, building confidence and partnerships between us, while also providing a much needed revenue source for the library to help reduce ongoing budget pressures.

For local authors and small publishers, libraries also have the potential to be strong partners for generating e-book sales, for providing access to other kinds of online and digital content, and for collaborating in the creation of new digital content based on the library’s unique collections.

One such example that demonstrates the potential for these kinds of partnerships is TPL’s collaboration with an innovative initiative called the Toronto Project. This online digital resource was set up by local authors, content producers, historians, and city builders “to help build meaningful connections between the City of Toronto and its population––past, present and future––through the use of history. Toronto has a rich history, and it is hoped that torontoproject.com will assist in illuminating the accomplishments of its people, and the strength and continuity of its diverse communities.”2

One of several partners in the project, TPL’s main contribution will be its extensive local history collections, special collections, and expertise, which will be used to help tell Toronto’s history in a way that makes it accessible, interactive, and brings it to life, using digital channels and applications to deliver the content. Some examples of this include: narrative documentaries (defined as “kinetic exhibits” that make use of text, kinetic text, photographs, video imaging, interactive protocols, and sound); independently written and published e-books on local history that would be lent and sold through the library’s
online channels; and an interactive encyclopedia of Toronto history, a collective narrative that “harvests history” from Toronto’s diverse communities and neighborhoods.

A Marked Difference in E-Book Usage

Despite significant challenges for public libraries’ access to e-content, we are seeing some expanded offerings from publishers and in 2011 TPL saw an  increase in availabiity of content over 2010. Combine this with the proliferation of e-readers and other e-book reading devices that are now cheaper and easier to use, and we’re seeing a marked difference in e-book usage in just one year. It started at the end of 2010, when Torontonians plugged in their new Christmas presents and took their devices for a spin at their library. As a result, in the week between Christmas and New Year’s 2010, TPL saw an incredible jump in e-book downloads. The trend wasn’t just in Toronto either. OverDrive reported that traffic and e-book checkout records were “smashed” during the 2010 Christmas holiday, with an increase of 93 percent over the month prior.3 We saw similar activity at TPL during the 2011 holiday season. On a single day (December 28), views of our downloads webpage spiked to more than 6,000, and since then we’ve had more than 2,500 page views each day—a 25 percent increase over the pre-holiday period.

Not surprisingly, around the same time that e-reader sales were taking off, we were seeing a real increase in Canadian e-book content––from small  publishers to some large publishing houses––and not just in terms of new titles of bestsellers and genre fiction that are very popular with the format.  Increasingly, we’ve seen the availability of more nonfiction and children’s materials (for example, Thomas the Tank), and even some books that are being issued exclusively in the e-book format (for example, Jack Layton’s essay collection, Hope is Better than Fear, published by Random House Canada). And, as a sure sign that e-books are becoming mainstream, the New York Times started publishing e-book bestseller fiction and nonfiction lists in early 2011.

Longevity of Access

One of the longer-term issues for libraries as we invest more heavily in e-books and other e-resources is longevity of access. Currently, most public libraries are dependent on the OverDrive platform to purchase and distribute their e-titles. And the e-titles we purchase are often in multiple proprietary formats. Still other platforms and services offer a subscription-based model, where purchasing of titles isn’t even an option. This was fine when we were purchasing titles in both print and online. But we’ve already seen with many subscription-based e-resources that the print versions are being phased out and “e” is the only option.

So what happens if a vendor or publisher chooses to pull a library “purchased” e-title from their lending inventory, or fifty years from now OverDrive is no longer around, or the proprietary formats have changed or disappeared? How do we guarantee continuous access for our customers? What if we want to change platforms and move from OverDrive to something new or different? How can we take our significant digital investment with us?

These are important questions that libraries, in partnership with publishers, producers, and distributors of e-content are working through to ensure that new formats like the e-book continue to fuel the growth of publishing, reading, and public access to information, and remain an important part of the innovative library services we deliver.


  1. Julie Bosman, “The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age,” New York Times, Sept. 2, 2011, accessed Jan. 11, 2012.
  2. Toronto Project, accessed Jan. 11, 2012.
  3. Dan Stasiewski, “Traffic and E-Book Checkout Records SMASHED Over Christmas Holiday,” OverDrive’s Digital Library Blog, Dec. 30, 2010, accessed Jan. 11, 2012.