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During the crisis, the library is at your fingertips

Thousands of electronic books are available online even though the doors remain closed

The Boston Public Library's reading room may be empty, but the library is offering extended services online amid the shutdown.
The Boston Public Library's reading room may be empty, but the library is offering extended services online amid the shutdown.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

It’s going to take more than COVID-19 to shut down the Boston Public Library. For that, you’d have to switch off the Internet.

Even before the coronavirus crackdown, the BPL’s downloadable electronic books, audiobooks, magazines, and movies were among its more popular offerings. Now, with thousands of self-quarantined families desperate for diversion, many of the library system’s 500 employees are hard at work upgrading and expanding its online inventory.

“The buildings are closed, but the library is very much open for business," said Michael Colford, director of library services.

So too are libraries throughout Massachusetts, such as those in the Boston suburbs belonging to the Minuteman or Old Colony library networks. In fact, more than 90 percent of North America’s public libraries offer some kind of online service for downloading electronic books.

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For instance, the Boston library subscribes to Hoopla, a service that provides access to as many as 800,000 e-books, movies, music recordings, and even comic books. A user can check out up to 12 titles in a calendar month — up from 10 before the coronavirus crisis began — to make sure they have enough to read. Boston users can “check out” a book for three weeks. After that, it’s automatically deleted from the user’s account.

Different libraries can set different usage quotas. The Brockton library, for instance, allows 15 checkouts per month. Libraries can also pick and choose which services to offer. The Brockton library offers audiobooks through Hoopla, but Boston’s does not.

It’s a budgetary thing. Hoopla charges a fee to libraries for every download, and library users in Boston were so enamored of audiobooks that it was making too big a dent in the library’s budget.

However, Boston does use Overdrive, another digital lending library that includes audiobooks in its inventory. Overdrive offers two smartphone apps — the original Overdrive and a sleek new app called Libby. And there’s RBDigital, with which users can get both audiobooks and popular magazines, including The Economist, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker.

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Both Overdrive and RBDigital charge libraries a fixed fee to carry their content, which can save the library a lot of money. But they permit only a limited number of “checkouts” at any one time. So just like with a printed copy, you may find that the book you want is already out and you have to put it on hold to get your turn. When that happens, the book will be automatically downloaded to your account.

These online services are available to anybody through desktop computers, and through smartphone apps for Apple and Android devices. To sign up, you need only the numbers printed on your library card. Every resident in the state is entitled to a Boston card, and you can apply for at the library’s website for a digital “eCard” if you don’t already have one.

The audiobooks are of the same high quality you’d expect from commercial services like Amazon’s Audible. And reading a book on a smartphone isn’t as clumsy as you might think. The apps make it easy to choose large, easy-to-read fonts, and you turn pages with a gentle swipe of a finger.

Laura Irmscher, the Boston library’s chief of collections, said the library had 2.7 million digital checkouts last year, almost as many as there were books, movie disks, and other items loaned. And the COVID-19 shutdown is speeding the shift to digital. Overdrive usage was 21 percent higher last week than at the same time last year, and new account signups leaped by 160 percent.

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There’s also booming demand for Boston library eCards. In all of March 2019, about 4,000 people applied for them; this March it was double that.

The library staff is also busy monitoring the most popular titles and genres, then obtaining digital licenses to add them to the inventory. “Romance and science fiction are our most popular genres,” Irmscher said. “We’ve also seen an increase in the kids’ content.”

The public library has long offered access to high-end academic and business databases for serious researchers. But since the crisis began, some of the database companies have begun offering better access to these services. For instance, AncestryLibrary, which offers genealogy data from old newspapers, was previously accessible only by going to the library. But for the duration of the crisis, it can be accessed remotely through the library’s website.

Libraries continue to deliver a host of other services via Internet or telephone. Patrons can still phone or e-mail reference librarians for answers to complicated questions, and they offer other online assistance, such as helping job hunters polish resumes. There are plenty of educational resources for children, and libraries are setting up online story hours and singalongs; the BPL, for example, is planning to live-stream literacy classes for adults.

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“My team is at home,” Imscher said, "but hard at work.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.