A stroll to the home computer is replacing a drive to the library for patrons of the Tampa Bay Library Consortium.

The consortium launched an online audio book program for 11 of its 97 libraries on Aug. 25. With a few clicks of the mouse, members can download four audio books at a time using free digital media software from OverDrive Inc. The program offers more than 300 titles, which can be downloaded to an MP3 player or burned onto CDs.

Use of the Program

Diana Sachs, member services coordinator of the Tampa Bay Library Consortium, said the program has been used heavily since going online.

"Within the first two weeks all of the items were checked out, and we had to buy some additional titles," Sachs said. "We've had 2,806 downloads within the first two months."

The program has more than 1,300 users, according to Sachs.

After seven days, the audio books disappear from the member's hard drive, allowing them to be checked out by others. The consortium buys each audio book at cost, for all 11 libraries to share. Publisher Blackstone Press, however, authorizes the consortium to check out its titles simultaneously to multiple patrons for the price of just one audio book. The Tampa Bay Library Consortium bought 50 titles from Blackstone Press.

Sachs said publishers aren't worried about the program resulting in serious copyright infringement.

"It's no different than when a library buys a book for its users," Sachs said. "A customer is going to want to change the titles that are on their downloadable MP3 player. They're going to continually go back and get additional titles."

Sachs said most audio books take up roughly 200 megabytes of space and require between eight to 12 CDs to record an entire book. She said this would make reproduction of the books on a market-threatening scale unlikely.

The consortium chooses the audio books from a catalog of publisher-authorized titles provided by OverDrive. Sachs said the program's creative team chose the online digital media provider because it offered user-friendly software and gave the consortium a good price. OverDrive manages the downloading for all 11 libraries, costing each of them $4,400 this year. Sachs said more libraries will join the audio book program next year, and the price will be renegotiated.

"The libraries that joined right away are sort of the front-line ones that try new technologies out," Sachs said.

The Role of Audio Books in Literature

Media content owners are getting comfortable with digital media delivery systems, said Charlie Parker, executive director of the Tampa Bay Library Consortium.

"They're getting a better comfort level in having their content out there, and they're taking advantage of this market," he said. "Libraries are big believers in intellectual property. Our business depends on a robust publishing industry."

The consortium's downloading service has been a technological rebirth for the recordable book, a format that's been popular for the past 20 years, according to Parker.

"Commuters love it," Parker said. "Truckers love this kind of content. It's a new way of experiencing literature, and we're really excited libraries are on the cutting edge of it."

Parker said hearing a book read dramatically can help people find value from unexpected places in literature. He recently listened to film actor Sean Penn read Bob Dylan's Chronicles on audio book. Parker said Penn added richness to an already wonderfully written word.

"This is an instance where technology helps people connect with their culture and enjoy it in a way that's useful to them," Parker said.

Coming in Handy

Sheila Feldman, resident of Dunedin, Fla., and member of the Tampa Bay Library Consortium, said she's been checking out audio books from Safe Harbor

Andy Opsahl  |  Staff Writer