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King County Library System staff reach out to commuters at the Bellevue Transit Center. (KCLS photo)

Library lending is increasingly going digital. And that global expansion of technology-based borrowing is being led by library systems serving Seattle and surrounding King County.

Numbers from OverDrive, which provides a digital distribution platform used by libraries worldwide, squarely put the Seattle Public Library and King County Library System in its top five libraries for digital checkouts in 2017. KCLS caps the U.S. library list with close to four million titles circulated, and SPL is at about two-and-a-half million checkouts.

Rounding out OverDrive’s top five are Los Angeles Public Library and the New York Public Library systems. At the pinnacle is the only non-U.S. system in the top five, Toronto Public Library in Canada. Toronto is also the only library to exceed KCLS’ totals.

While it’s heady company for Seattle and King County, it also illustrates the shift in how library patrons are moving from the physical to the digital. OverDrive’s tally of what it calls the “Million Checkout Club” totaled 58 library systems in 2017 with more than one million digital checkouts, up from 49 libraries a year earlier. Among the nine first-timers on the list is the Pierce County Library System in Tacoma.

All told, OverDrive says public libraries worldwide recently hit the one billion checkout threshold.

OverDrive’s Libby app for libraries supports eBooks and audiobooks.

Steve Potash, founder and CEO of OverDrive, said several forces are driving the increasing number of libraries exceeding one million annual checkouts. “These include significant spikes in use by parents for kids” as well as titles designed to attract teens, Potash told GeekWire. “Popular adult fiction is still the mainstay, and New York Times bestsellers and series continue to drive tremendous engagement.”

What helped Seattle and King County rise to the top of the rankings, Potash said, is that they were early adopters of the lending services for eBooks and digital audiobooks, thanks in part to the area’s tech community. “Both KCLS and SPL are pioneering market leaders that libraries across the U.S. and abroad look to for innovation and leadership,” he said.

Seattle Public Library’s catalog site highlights eBooks available for immediate reading.

That’s a characterization not likely to be disputed by either library system. But both are seeing their early explosive growth in digital circulation slowing. KCLS Librarian Angela Nolet said its growth rate last year was at roughly 15 percent, down from more than 20 percent a year earlier and higher before that. “We continued to see strong growth (since 2011) as devices were added and passed down in families,” Nolet said. “Now that the conversation has shifted to what age to give a tween/teen a smartphone and what is the appropriate amount of screen time for young children, we’re looking at promoting our digital services to King County residents who aren’t fully using the library yet.”

Andrew Harbison, assistant director of collections and access at Seattle Public Library, said its story is similar. “We’re seeing a steady 10-12 percent increase in the last few years, versus the 25-percent-plus growth rate of previous years,” he said of stats going back to 2010. “Reading habits seem to be getting more established which steady the trends, particularly as eBooks and devices become more commonplace in our day-to-day lives.”

But growth engines for digital circulation remain, and one is audiobooks. Harbison said it’s a matter of  convenience. “You can listen while you commute to work by car, bus, or bicycle, and then also listen while you do your laundry, clean your house, or go to the gym,” he said. “And, it’s become a lot easier to pick up where you left off – and also easier to discover and use new content practically whenever and wherever you want.”

The uptick in digital audiobook uptake is reflected beyond library patrons in the general population. Pew Research recently reported that 18 percent of Americans say they’ve listened to an audiobook in the previous 12 months, up from 14 percent in 2016. Adults ages 18 to 29 saw significant growth in audiobook listening,  increasing to 23 percent in 2018 from 16 percent two years earlier. That, while adult eBook readership slightly declined from 28 percent to 26 percent.

Both Seattle and King County plan to continue to increase both digital materials available for patrons as well as outreach about what’s available. SPL, for example, added streaming classic and independent movies from Kanopy last fall. KCLS promotes its online resources to school districts with its Student eCard, a digital-only “card” that securely uses student ID numbers to access the collection.

KCLS’ online library includes selections for kids.

For its part, Potash said OverDrive will be adding popular magazines and journals to its collection later this year. “These will work exactly the same as eBooks, online or offline,” Potash said. Also being added are more eBooks in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and other European languages. “Titles in these languages are great for language learning as well as entertainment and education for native speakers,” he said.

And paper is not dead yet. Or perhaps ever.

Harbison points to the success SPL has had with its new Peak Picks displays, featuring print bestsellers and in-demand titles that can’t be reserved or renewed but are available for immediate reading gratification. “In reviewing our social media stats, patron comments and media coverage, Peak Picks has received the most attention and accolades, far outperforming anything in the digital space,” he said.

Paper still abides: Seattle Public Library’s Peak Picks. (SPL photo)

“There is also some evidence to suggest that people, including younger generations, want and need a break from screen time,” Harbison said. “Circulation of print materials for children, in particular, is an area that has remained strong due to the fact that reading print can be experientially valuable.”

Even OverDrive’s Potash thinks print and physical media will always be an important part of a library’s offerings. “Digital can bring new readers to discover what their library offers, day or night,” he said. “We’ve found that new readers that are first introduced,or re-introduced, to the library through the eBook collection often also use many of the in-branch services and physical media that the library offers.”

Just as digital has eventually struck a balance with the physical in other areas of real life, the same appears to be happening with library content. Digital isn’t fully replacing the physical, but rather each is providing a gateway to the other.

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