WASHINGTON — Card-holders at thousands of libraries nationwide are borrowing books, movies, audio books and music for free 24-7 without leaving home. And they never pay late fees.
The secret is that their libraries subscribe to new digital-media collections from which patrons download materials to their home computers. All they need to access the material is free software that their library provides.
What's available varies from hundreds to thousands of titles, depending on how many a library has purchased from its digital media-collection company. The two leaders, which are wooing librarians nationwide for their business, are OverDrive, based in Cleveland, and MyLibraryDV, based in Prince Frederick, Md.
The systems enable libraries to expand their offerings - and their timeliness - without having to store the titles physically or hire more staff. In addition, librarians hope that digital home borrowing will attract young computer-savvy patrons who rarely come through their doors.
"Our customer-service model is changing," said Glenna Rhodes, electronic resource librarian at the Boise (Idaho) Public Library. "We can no longer be a brick building. To support the new technological generation, we have to go where they are."
As Ruth Lednicer, the director of marketing at the Chicago Public Library, put it, "We have 79 physical locations but refer to our Web site as our 80th branch."
OverDrive offers more than 100,000 titles, including Oprah's Book Club selections and books from The New York Times' lists of bestsellers. MyLibraryDV, which is just getting under way, promises 1,500 feature movies - foreign and domestic - plus TV series such as "Antiques Roadshow" and "Rick Steves' Europe."
In most cases, an unlimited number of borrowers can check out titles simultaneously.
Picking titles is as easy as online shopping; patrons click "add to cart" to borrow an item.
A program that piggybacks on downloaded offerings erases them from the borrower's home computer after seven to 14 days, depending on the library's policy.
The cost to libraries depends on the number of digital titles it acquires and the number of potential borrowers.
The State Library of Kansas, an OverDrive subscriber, made 3,463 titles - including 2,442 audio books - available to any resident of the state in 2006, the first year of its program. Giving the state's 1.5 million residents access to the system costs $25,000 a year. Kansas also paid a onetime cost of $10 to $100 per title. That cost the state $160,000 more.
It's been a hit, said Eric Gustafson, the state library's technical consultant.
"We have gotten a lot of positive buzz," he said. "Users really enjoy having access to audio books they can download from anywhere in the state at any time."
Borrower numbers reflect the success. "Most libraries are happy if a book circulates five times," said Patti Butcher, the director of statewide resource-sharing for the Kansas system. "Our digital titles have been checked out an average of 11 times over the past year."
In the month of June, she reported, 1,285 people used the service, including 481 first-timers. Downloads totaled 4,225 titles.
Many of the new borrowers live far from libraries, Butcher suspects. "We believe these services increase library use in rural areas because people can easily borrow from home."
There've also been complaints, however.
Because the files are huge, downloading almost requires broadband access. Only a fifth of U.S. households have it, according to a survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
In addition, current systems are designed for PCs, not Macs. This means that iPods can't play borrowed music or titles. Also, digital borrowing does nothing for the tens of millions of U.S. households without home computers.
For all these reasons, libraries that add digital services continue to maintain physical collections for electronically disadvantaged borrowers.
Asked about his product's incompatibility with Macs, Brian Downing, MyLibraryDV's publisher, said it was a small problem. "We are pleased to be compatible with 93 percent of the market share," he said, referring to the PC's dominance of the home-computer industry.
He added: "Libraries are about being a focal point of the community. If this service helps people realize the value of the library, then we will be pleased with that."