Using the Kindle in Library Settings - A Survey, Updated

By Montrese Hamilton, Published on November 10, 2010

Recently, I wrote a summary of responses to my survey of three Special Libraries Association discussion lists about using the Kindle, Amazon.com's electronic document reader, in library settings. The questions were well-received and more replies arrived after my wrap-up was published so I return with the new comments plus insights gathered from my own Kindle-lending experiment.

Of course, the Kindle is one of several e-book readers on the market. Borders sells a variety of readers and Barnes & Noble just updated the Nook e-reader with a color touch screen. Beyond the devices are applications that make e-books available across multiple platforms. Ultimately, choosing one device over another is a matter of price, title availability, added features, and personal experience.

The reasons given for choosing e-readers to circulate content among library clients ranged from offering material in more-portable formats to adding copies of a title for lending to staff book groups. Also, offering e-readers is a way to align with client expectations: "When clients who have already used a Kindle request an article or report, some have asked if a Kindle version is available." In my case, I needed to cut the time in which I could deliver book requests to my users. Interlibrary borrowing is still a key component of my reference strategy but rising lending fees and shipping costs make electronic options all the more attractive.

Respondents also mentioned a desire to provide their clients with an opportunity to test the Kindle - a smart way to exert subtle influence on an information center's image as a source for what users need and want. The Kindle and other readers are ready-made tools through which to launch a viral marketing campaign and my own library is an example. I first tried a colleague's personal Kindle before deciding to buy two for the library. Once I had them set up for lending, I needed to tell only two people about this new library borrowing option before the word spread and my desk morphed into an e-reader show-and-tell center. The return on investment thus far is good buzz, higher foot traffic, and more face time with my clients.

Before sending their Kindles into circulation, libraries commented on logistical considerations. The most important was reviewing the terms-and-conditions under which Amazon sells the device. One respondent did quite a bit of research before implementing their program: "many libraries seemed to be interpret Amazon's terms of use differently (some have claimed that an Amazon rep. said circulating Kindles is OK, while others have not done so at the suggestion of their legal counsel)".

Another correspondent pointed out that any library wanting to use Kindles as a tool for accommodating clients with disabilities should first do some research. "[Search the] literature for the universities that ran a Kindle pilot for textbook [in 2009]; the courts ruled [that Kindles] were not adequate for those with disabilities and the university could not use them as a textbook platform." The fact that publishers can disable the read-aloud feature on their content may have contributed to the courts' decision.

Building a Kindle-book collection posed the next major challenge. From its introduction, there was no way to "lend" Kindle books but just this month Amazon announced a forthcoming option that will allow buyers to share their books with other Kindle users. There is no indication at present if the feature will address organization-to-individual lending.

In the meantime, each organization handles e-book circulation differently. I decided to add a catalog record for each Kindle book to the library's OPAC but load the devices with only basic reference items (dictionaries, thesauri, etc.). I then add the requested title(s) as-needed so I can track each book's usage; I don't have to worry about gauging popularity for weeding purposes but the data inform my future buying decisions. If future lending volume renders this approach untenable, I might follow a respondent's example - they store the whole library on each device (fewer than 20 titles so far).

The Kindle platform supports PDF documents so users can load their devices with articles, reports, etc. The feature makes it much easier to collect and organize a variety of materials but libraries must decide what should (not) be included. One respondent described their experience: "The library has investigated uploading PDF reports on all the Kindles -- seems very doable and useful, but [we] are undecided about which reports would be most valuable to upload."

Another person did not receive any comments about the ability to store non-book documents from their users. However, she found the Kindle inadequate for viewing PDFs in a readable size. [Note: Kindle software update 2.5 added the ability to pan and zoom within PDF documents which should address that limitation.]

A more prosaic but just as important issue is what to do with the Kindles. I keep them locked in a desk drawer while another organization places theirs in a locked server/storage room to which only library staffers have access.

The last step before sending a Kindle into the world is to address its connectivity to the Kindle Store. Since I purchased the Wi-Fi-only model, I simply caution my clients to not connect to a hot spot or otherwise use the device to buy/download content. Another option reported is to deactivate [them] when they circulate so the user can't use the credit card tied to the library's Amazon account.

Once the Kindles were in the hands of clients, libraries carefully noted feedback on the user experience. Some borrowers really liked "the portability of reading material, the ability to preview books before purchase, and the number and diversity of titles they could store conveniently". Others admitted to conducting product trials to see if they might want to buy their own device.

To streamline capture of client feedback, the Minnesota Department of Transportation Library designed a Kindle-user survey. The library volunteered to make the instrument available to readers; access it here. To ask questions about the survey instrument, contact the library or through their Web site. In the end, e-readers are just one more tool through which information professionals meet their clients' needs. According to one respondent, devices are an adjunct, not (yet) replacement for books: "Users still have access to the physical library and the library is always willing to purchase books which interest them."

When defining what may be one of the most important outcomes of using the Kindle and its ilk, another librarian has the last word: "One [user] increased his interactions with the Library significantly during his use of the Kindle. He purchased his own device and returned to the previous pattern of occasionally contacting the library. However, the library developed a closer relationship with trial participants and is more likely to be included in future projects and research queries."