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Digital Bookmobile Spreads the Electronic Word

Who needs to buy when you can borrow?

This year at the National Book Festival held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., a new type of literary celebrity drew a crowd: the digital bookmobile, a massive, air-conditioned, 18-wheel trailer that took up nearly the entire city block from the National Gallery of Art to the Hirshhorn Museum.

Toss aside your antiquated image of bookmobiles, those tiny U-Hauls and VW buses parked outside elementary schools, stocked with paperbacks for kids who arrived with pocket money to buy books for the year. The digital bookmobile isn't a store, and its books aren't for sale. Instead it is a tactile, roaming tutor; a how-to for the electronic era. The digital bookmobile teaches us not how to buy online but, how to borrow online. That is: how to download books, videos, audiobooks, films and television shows from your local library.

The digital bookmobile is a traveling exhibit that drives from city to city, all year round, teaching the public how important a library card remains in the digital era. Now, with the participation of 11,000 public libraries, you can download nearly everything you once physically borrowed. Even better: you can download books (text or audio), videos and music from anywhere in the world: from the office, from the beach, from your kitchen table. But you still need a library card.

David Burleigh, director of marketing for OverDrive, the for-profit company that owns and operates the digital bookmobile, points out that the bus has traveled 50,000 miles and hosted 300 events with some 61,000 library patrons in 47 states and Canadian provinces. It has 350,000 digital titles in its inventories, ranging from popular fiction and romance to mystery, nonfiction, foreign language and travel. According to Burleigh, 66% of libraries now offer e-books. The year 2010 has seen a 73% increase in electronic lending over last year — 15 million checkouts are anticipated for 2010 alone.

The basic premise of this virtual library is like online shopping — you collect your books, videos or e-books into a shopping cart or book bag, then you "check out." Here, instead of a credit card, the system asks for a library card number. As with brick-and-mortar libraries, you can't keep these books forever. The download lasts only for as long as you've borrowed it, with each library setting its own loan limit. And, just as with physical books, while some libraries own multiple digital copies of a book, others own just one, which means only one library patron at a time can download it.

Browsing the collections in the digital bookmobile is just like wandering the aisles of a library.

When you're ready to download, you need to install a free software system on to your device — OverDrive Media Console for music, video or audiobooks or Adobe digital editions for e-books. Then you can read your borrowed book on your PC or Mac, your Sony e-reader, your Barnes and Noble Nook or your iPad. (A dedicated iPad app will come out later this year. The Kindle, notably, does not have compatible technology.) Every book can become a large print edition; every page can be tailored to each reader's eyes. Music can be played on MP3 players and videos can be watched on iPhones, tablets or computer screens.

If the digital bookmobile comes to your city, you can check out its added features, such as the "video lounge," where visitors can see films, documentaries, classic movies, television shows, travel videos and instructional programs that are available for download from libraries across the country. (Everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Cher: The Farewell Tour.) And there's a Gadget Gallery, which shows the various devices (outside of your own computer) that work with this technology, as well as which MP3 players work for the audiobooks and music catalogs.

The most downloaded audiobook and e-book? No surprise there: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.