Steve Potter was sitting in a plane at Kansas City International Airport, waiting to taxi away from the gate.
“I got an email saying, ‘The audiobook that you’ve been waiting for is ready,’” says Potter, director of Mid-Continent Public Library. “So I’m like, OK, I’ll give this a try, see how fast it downloads.”
Before it was time to put his phone in airplane mode, he’d downloaded the audiobook and had it to listen to on his flight.
“Just the whole idea that I was doing that I was sitting in an airplane to me was just mind-boggling,” says Potter. “But that’s kind of where we are, and that’s where our library is.”
This week Mid-Continent celebrated 1 million e-book downloads in 2015 on Overdrive, one of several platforms it uses to provide library patrons with digital content. It’s the first library in the region to reach the million-book milestone.
That might not sound like a significant accomplishment, but consider this: the pace of digital downloads through the Mid-Continent Public Library system has outpaced even large libraries in Oklahoma and Texas.
“Over 10 percent of our circulation is coming from people who are choosing to access their information not in a traditional way, not by getting in their car and coming to us between 9 and 9 when our buildings are open,” Potter says.
Potter says the library system is constantly gathering data on how people’s reading habits are changing. “Digitarians” only access the library’s digital collection. “Page-turners” still read physical books. Then there are “transitionals,” that in-between group that borrows from both collections.
As tablets and e-readers have become more prevalent, the library’s digital collection has grown. There are 2 million titles available on Overdrive. Still, there’s often a wait list for the most popular titles.
“Is it as convenient as being able to go to Amazon.com and buy whatever you want? No, it’s not,” Potter says. “It’s not that convenient. Is it cheaper? Yes, it’s much cheaper and certainly much more manageable for someone who is budget conscious.”
Part of the challenge is how digital materials are licensed. If 10 people want to borrow the same book on their Kindle and the library only has the rights to one copy, they’ll have to get in line just like they would for a physical book.
This week, as winter weather hit Kansas City, demand for digital material was almost on par with physical checkouts – 13,931 digital downloads compared to 15,572 physical items loaned as of Wednesday afternoon.
“A lot of people didn’t want to get out because it was raining and sleeting and stuff like that, and so you can see our folks who checked out digital materials were almost equally active as our people who physically visit the libraries,” Potter says.
He added that once the year’s over, the library will tabulate all of its digital downloads – not just those on Overdrive – and that number should add up to way more than a million.
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.