Keaton Kustler rarely visits the Los Angeles Public Library, though her apartment is just two blocks from its historic Wilshire Branch. When she wants a book — which is often — she borrows one from an app, using a library card she got through her smartphone.
“The last year of my life has been rocked by the library,” said Kustler, 27. “I’m kicking myself it took me so long.”
She represents a growing faction of impassioned readers driving a nationwide surge in digital borrowing. Like other devotees, she now collects library cards to satisfy her voracious reading habit.
The practice is widespread, but in L.A., it’s become a rite of passage. The county is home to more than 30 of the state’s 184 library systems, and though most accept applications only in person, their physical proximity and a quirk of California law mean Angelenos can take cards from any of them.
“You can have 10 library cards, and everybody gets free and open access,” said Altadena Library District Director Nikki Winslow. “When it comes to resource sharing, we want all of our stuff to go out. We’re not spending taxpayer money for this stuff to sit on the shelf.”
But a major publisher has sent a chill through that system, alarming librarians and their newly dedicated patrons.
On Nov. 1, Macmillan Publishers imposed restrictions on libraries acquiring its new e-books, limiting systems from the tiny Irwindale Public Library to the massive L.A. Public Library to a single digital copy for the first eight weeks after publication. All subsequent copies will be metered, an increasingly common and contested practice that limits how e-books are loaned.
Macmillan did not respond to requests for comment. In a public letter explaining the move, Chief Executive John Sargent wrote that the embargo grew out of concern that “library lending was cannibalizing sales.”
“We believe the very rapid increase in the reading of borrowed e-books decreases the perceived economic value of a book,” he wrote in a subsequent letter to librarians. “As the development of apps and extensions continues, and as libraries extend their reach statewide as well as nationally, it is becoming ever easier to borrow rather than buy.”
The Assn. of American Publishers declined to comment.
“I see why publishers would want to find some way to get paid … and I also see why libraries would want to extend the book to as many readers as possible,” said author Celeste Ng, whose second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” was the most borrowed e-book in 2018. “Most writers want their book to find an audience. They also need to get paid for what was maybe a five- or six- or 10-year project.”
Nationally, electronic lending is still a small fraction of total library circulation. But as e-books’ share of the American publishing market grows, many systems have seen physical circulation slip while digital borrowing balloons.
Close to 10% of the L.A. library’s 2.1 million in-city borrowers now have digital-only cards like Kustler’s, and data suggest they are among the most voracious e-readers around. Last year, the city’s library system was the second-largest lender of digital materials in the country, just ahead of New York. This year, it could edge out Washington’s King County Library System to take the top spot.
Libraries across the country have seen a similar e-lending renaissance. OverDrive, the digital distributor for 90% of North American libraries and creator of the highly popular Libby app, expects 300 million checkouts this year, up from 274 million in 2018.
But the effects of e-books’ rise are even more pronounced on smaller libraries.
The Beverly Hills Public Library is an instructive example: The city has about 34,000 residents and more than 30,000 active library cards, 5,270 of which were issued in the last fiscal year, when digital borrowing grew 67% and print circulation declined.
“The rise of electronic borrowing has definitely influenced how patrons use public libraries,” Pasadena City College librarian Ken Simon said in an email. “There’s more shopping around between library systems, especially in the L.A. area, for e-books that are hard to find or have wait lists.”
Siel Ju, 42, of Burbank borrows bestsellers on four different library cards. Andres Ortiz, 38, of Gardena uses six. Jill Zuckerman Powell, 65, of Tarzana has nine, among them a $120-a-year nonresident membership to the Toronto Public Library.
“People pride themselves on collecting — they feel that it makes them a strong library supporter,” said Diane Satchwell, executive director of the Southern California Library Cooperative. “I’ve seen key rings with 30 or 40 cards.”
Some collectors said they borrowed an average of 100 titles or more every year, often toggling among systems to find rare books and shorter hold times — precisely the behavior Macmillan said its embargo was designed to prevent.
But that behavior has also shaped how local librarians build their collections, freeing smaller jurisdictions to spend more on culturally specific resources while larger ones fill the gaps.
“There is often less than 10% overlap in purchasing” between similarly sized jurisdictions, said Christopher Kellermeyer, the Altadena system’s IT manager, who ran a recent survey of libraries in the state. “Each library has its own community it’s serving, and each library has something special going on. Being able to share helps to create this equality and diversification that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
The restrictions could threaten that ecosystem, librarians said. They could also further marginalize borrowers whose digital access is already limited by the high price libraries pay for their electronic collections.
E-books are many times more expensive for libraries than they are for consumers, said Alan S. Inouye, senior director of public policy and government relations for the American Library Assn. Most are also metered, meaning the library can loan them only a set number of times.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “The embargo was the last straw.”
Like other critics, he said the data justifying the embargo failed to capture the complexity of e-lending or the ways it had changed reading for borrowers.
“Macmillan’s embargo is one small piece of a much larger issue,” said American Library Assn. spokeswoman Shawnda Hines.“They think every checkout to a library is a sale lost. But they don’t have any evidence to back that up.”
Among the roughly 200 digital borrowers who shared their experience with The Times, a handful said they had stopped buying books once they learned they could borrow them. E-book sales slipped about 4% in the last half of 2018, a year in which OverDrive loans grew 19%.
“Technology has been able to expand everyone’s access,” said Santa Monica Public Library services director Patty Wong. “We’re ecstatic that it’s creating a resurgence of readers. We’re busier than ever before.”
Audiobooks let commuters “read” in traffic, she said, while automatic returns eliminated late fees for absent-minded borrowers and adjustable electronic typefaces freed older readers from large-print tomes.
“I used to read maybe one book a month, and it increased to about one a week,” said Jennifer Sarvas, 36, of Mount Washington. “I walk around the house and do dishes and laundry — pretty much anything you can imagine, I’ll be listening to an audiobook.”
Indeed, almost everyone who responded to an online query from The Times said they read more with e-lending than they had before it.
“If it weren’t for the library, I would have read two books this year,” said Kustler, who has amassed seven new library cards since she borrowed her first e-book a year ago.
Ju said she preferred to buy books in print — hardcover sales have grown modestly in recent years — though in a “reading emergency” she splurged on the e-book version of Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror,” which had sold out at Skylight Books in Los Feliz and was on hold at all four local libraries to which she belonged. (The Los Angeles Public Library’s 115 e-book copies are all on hold, as are its 62 copies of the audiobook.)
Rather than undermining sales, readers said, borrowing brought literature into their digital diets, displacing podcasts and Instagram with new authors and genres they otherwise never would have picked up. For some card collectors, rediscovering the library through e-borrowing has been so profound that it feels almost spiritual.
“I really do feel evangelical about it,” Kustler said. “It’s completely changed my life.”
Ortiz, too, said he evangelized electronic borrowing — even if it means longer waits for Tana French and Stephen King.
“I talk up libraries all the time. I say go get your card, go find out what’s there — they don’t just have books,” Ortiz said. “I’m trying to preach the good word.”