Monday, December 28, 2009

Like Netflix for Books

I just finished reading The Life And Times Of Martha Washington In The Twenty-First Century, the oversized hardback edition of the epic comic book series by Frank "300" Miller and Dave "Watchmen" Gibbons. This book has a cover price of $100. It's 600 pages long and weighs over seven pounds without the slipcase.


(photo from BoingBoing)

It's a good book, and I never would have bought it myself, but I got to read it and enjoy it for free, thanks to my local public library.

My wife and I live in the Portland (Oregon) metropolitan area, which means we have access to the Multnomah County Library in Portland proper and the Fort Vancouver Regional Library, just across the river in Washington state. Even better, both library systems have online catalogs, so you can search for the exact book you want.

The best part is that both libraries allow patrons to place any book "on hold." Back in Mountain View, the library would only allow you to put something on hold if it was checked out--if the book was on the shelf, you had to go find it yourself. Not here. Even if a book is shelved, tireless Portland and Vancouver library staff will retrieve it for you--from anywhere in their system--and send it to the "hold" shelf at your preferred branch.

Once that's happened, you'll get an e-mail telling you the book is "on hold"--only your library card can check it out--as long as you pick it up soon (within ten days in Vancouver; seven in Portland). After you've got it, you can also renew it online, unless someone else has put it on hold after you.

The only way this could be more convenient is if, like Netflix, the libraries mailed books directly to us. And they actually do offer that service--in Vancouver, you need special approval; anyone can request it in Portland for $2 per book plus return shipping costs. But it just seems wrong for us to be that lazy, especially when running errands is one of the few things that gets us out of the house these days.

The big advantage for us is being able to create something akin to a Netflix "queue." We tell the library what books we want to read, and they tell us when those books are available. I put Superfreakonomics on hold in Vancouver last month, and I'm now up to #20 on the list, but I'm in no hurry. Portland has a great graphic novel collection, and I was able to catch up with DC's insanely insane Final Crisis stuff without having to track down individual issues at comic shops or spend money on trade paperback collections that I'd only read once.

This also makes for some pleasant surprises, when we get pickup notices for books that we'd put on hold months ago and then forgotten about. I've currently got two books on hold that the library hasn't even purchased, because they haven't been published yet. But I know I'll be able to read them when they are.

None of this takes away from the fact that I love owning books. It still requires non-trivial self-control to limit my purchases every time we hit Powell's. It's just really nice to feel like at least some of my local tax dollars are going to support a great service that we use quite a bit, and from which we derive great personal benefit. I didn't ask my country to do this for me, but I'll take it!

CKL
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