It may not be the end of book borrowing as we know it, but it could mean the end of overdue fines at the public library.
Digital books, known as eBooks, are electronic copies of print material that get automatically checked back into a library's e-catalogue at the end of a loan period.
The New Westminster library introduced eBooks into its catalogue in 2009, and the popularity of these digital texts has been growing steadily since then.
In the first year there were 2,234 downloads, while in 2010 that number grew to 3,730. Last year the number of titles downloaded jumped to 9,001.
The rise in eBooks readership at the library may have something to do with sales of eBook readers like Kobo and Kindle during the Christmas season, said Susan Buss, department manager for collections and circulation at the New Westminster Public Library.
"We first noticed a huge spike in use on Dec. 25, 2010 at around 2 p.m. in the e-catalogue. That's when the e-readers really started taking off in the marketplace. Our use of the eBook collection is growing rapidly, so we're offering more titles."
As of this week, the library database holds just under 17,000 eBook titles available for downloading to a library eBook reader, or to a personal reader, tablet, computer or smart phone.
Another reason many people are choosing to read digital books is because of the advantage of having up to 100 novels stored on a reading device that is smaller and lighter than most paperbacks, said Buss.
Reading on the SkyTrain or while on a treadmill at the gym is a lot easier with the small handheld device, she noted, because of its size and the fact that the text can be enlarged.
With screens that are not backlit, the 17 Kobo readers available for loan at the library don't put a strain on the eyes like a computer screen does, and they can be read in direct sunlight, just like a printed page.
So with all the advantages of the new technology, will paperbacks soon go the way of the dodo bird?
"I don't think so, although a lot of people say 'yes'," said Buss. "It's hard to say what the next 10 years is going to be like, but you know, (e-readers) do require power. You do need to charge them, so you need an outlet. They will run out."
For some, the simplicity of checking out a book and opening it to read immediately also has advantages over having to deal with the technology required to read an eBook, said Buss.
Before an eBook can be downloaded and read, digital rights management software - Adobe Digital Additions - must be downloaded and installed to deal with the automatic checkin requirement. This ensures the book is only borrowed temporarily.
And, as with any popular best selling title, the library has only so many copies of each eBook. Because they are electronic files, many people don't realize there are a limited number of copies of each file to borrow at one time, just as there are with traditional books, said Buss.
In response to a greater demand for certain titles or genres, the library stocks up on extra copies of the most popular books.
For example, Sophie Kinsella's I've Got Your Number is the top fiction title available to download, and there are 315 holds on the limited copies available.
The top title, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is only available as an audio book due to publisher restrictions. There are 20 audio copies of this book available at the library, with 448 people waiting for a copy on hold.
"So that's one of the issues of the popularity of this, it's hard finding something really popular in, ready when you go in," said Buss. "A lot of them you have to wait for."
Buss said the popularity of the eBooks is not limited to a specific demographic; patrons of all ages, backgrounds and both genders have been trying out the technology. To streamline the process of checking out a Kobo reader, the library has pre-downloaded titles on the devices, with both adult and teen titles.
Books are available in English as well as some in Chinese.
In the coming year, Buss said the library is planning to acquire popular magazine titles as well for downloading to the e-readers.
The library's devices come in a case that includes a charger, USB connection cable and two instruction booklets.
Buss said patrons should note the most popular e-reader on the market, the Kindle, does not support the library's eBooks.
A workshop on how to download an eBook from the library catalogue will be held on Tuesday, April 24 at 7 p.m. at the New Westminster Public Library at 716 Sixth Ave.
To register, or for more information, call 604-527-4660 or www.nwpl.ca.