As the popularity of e-readers has soared, so has the checkout rate for library e-books — and with it, phone calls and emails from borrowers seeking help.

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As the popularity of e-readers has soared, so has the checkout rate for library e-books — and with it, phone calls and emails from borrowers seeking help.

The Seattle Public Library, for example, reports that about 70 percent of “help” calls to its “ask a librarian” line relate to digital content.

King County Library System records show the number of tech-support calls, which includes e-books inquiries, increased by 230 percent from May 2010 to May 2011.

“They go into Barnes & Noble or wherever they’re buying their reader,” said Denise Siers, a director of public services with the King County system. “They see the text on the screen. I’m not sure how they think it automatically gets there. I’m sure they picture the downloading is much easier than it is. We’re trying to assist in that area.”

With library borrowing privileges, patrons can check out as many as 20 digital titles at a time from the King County system and 25 from the Seattle Public Library. They can keep them for up to 21 days, after which they automatically expire. As with purchased e-books, e-reader owners can control font size, look up words and perform searches of the book’s text, among other goodies.

In other words, borrowing books is a selling point for e-reader vendors. It’s also an opportunity for libraries to connect with next-generation readers.

A less-advertised aspect is the trouble some readers encounter transferring books over to their mobile devices.

Kirk Blankenship, electronic-resources librarian with Seattle Public Library, notes there are “several pieces of independent software that need to work together right, and if you don’t do it all in the exact right order, you’re … you know, it doesn’t work.”

Blankenship believes it’s no accident that borrowing an e-book from a library is far more cumbersome than buying one online from Barnes & Noble or on iTunes.

“There’s not a lot of incentive for them [publishers] to reduce that friction and make the borrowing experience as easy as the buying experience,” he says.

OverDrive, the Cleveland company that manages distribution of digital content on behalf of nearly 15,000 libraries nationwide, acknowledges the borrowing process isn’t as streamlined as it could be.

“We’re keenly aware of the obstacles, let’s say, to getting these things [e-books and audio books] onto some of the devices,” said David Burleigh, OverDrive’s marketing director.

The company has developed software called OverDrive Media Console, which serves as a platform for libraries to distribute content to patrons.

Media Console has been around for several years for desktop computers and much more recently as a free, downloadable app for mobile devices.

For publishers, OverDrive incorporates Adobe Digital Editions’ DRM (digital rights management) technology to enforce expiration dates and prevent books from being copied.

It is during the initial set up that some users encounter problems. They must establish an Adobe ID for the computer to which they download library e-books, and for each mobile device to which they download e-books directly or transfer from desktops.

Those transfers are a relatively clunky process entailing a physical connection between the desktop and e-reader via USB cable. That’s the case with devices such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook line, the Sony Reader and Kobo.

(Amazon’s Kindle, which has been incompatible with library borrowing, is poised to join the party, according to Amazon and OverDrive. Details regarding when that will take place and what the borrowing process will involve were unavailable as of this writing.)

Both Seattle Public Library and King County Library System offer help in a variety of ways, including online videos, “getting started” guides, and phone and email support.

Even so, it can take perseverance to succeed. That was certainly true for me.

Downloading e-books from the library to my desktop, an iMac, was uneventful. But things went south after I attached the Nook because Adobe couldn’t detect it.

To its credit, Seattle Public Library’s “getting started” guide notes Adobe Digital Editions sometimes has that problem and recommends users keep trying.

Which I did, repeatedly connecting and disconnecting the USB cable, along with opening and closing Adobe.

It took at least a half dozen times before something clicked and the Nook appeared, allowing me to drag and drop the e-book file in the appropriate place.

The process has gotten smoother. But it’s still not what I’d call a fluid operation.

In addition to having to formulate instructions and develop software for a variety of devices and operating systems, librarians and OverDrive have to deal with a lack of format uniformity. The emerging e-book standard is known as EPUB. But others, including Mobipocket and PDF, are out there, creating compatibility problems.

(Kreg Hasegawa, a specialist in virtual services at Seattle Public Library, said that aspect is particularly troublesome for some older Sony Readers because of an apparent bug when users attempt to transfer PDF and EPUB e-books during the same session.)

Still, librarians give OverDrive credit for tweaking its desktop software and developing apps that better integrate Adobe DRM technology to allow direct, wireless transfer of e-books to variety of devices, including iPhone, iPad, Blackberry and Android phones and tablets. Introduced late last year, OverDrive’s apps have been downloaded about 1.3 million times as of this month, Burleigh said.

Reportedly, the company is working with Barnes & Noble to develop an app for Nooks.

Apps have helped fuel library checkouts, which are on pace to reach “30 million or more in 2011 alone,” Burleigh said. That’s a towering number when you stop to consider the checkout total since 2003 is about 50 million.

As a result of last holiday season’s e-reader buying surge, for the first time e-book library checkouts have surpassed audiobooks, both locally and nationally.

Seattle Public Library recommends a free app called Bluefire Reader that works with Apple devices and also supports PDF files. Unlike OverDrive’s app, Bluefire requires syncing with iTunes, but that’s already a routine for many.

Both apps generally worked fine on my iPhone from the get-go, though in limited testing I encountered a download-killing error with OverDrives app, something about “ASC4 License Initialization” associated with Adobe.

Despite such hiccups, David Wasserman, online-services coordinator for King County Library System, is optimistic about the future of e-book borrowing.

“This is a first-generation service that should only get easier to use,” he said. “Our vendor, OverDrive, continues to improve their apps and release new ones… Even better, a new product for libraries (Blio) will bring much-needed competition to the market as soon as this summer.

“With all of this in mind, we expect to see considerable improvement in both the availability of titles and the means for library patrons to gain access to them.”

Peter Lewis is a freelance writer

in Seattle.