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Forget all those tiny Dewey Decimal stickers on the spines of books. 3M's library business has gone digital.
Last month, the Maplewood conglomerate unveiled its eBook Lending Service in libraries in Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties. It's the first big rollout in Minnesota since 3M started a pilot program with the St. Paul Public Library in April.
Instead of combing through aisles of books, patrons can check out five e-books at a time for 21 days without ever stepping into a library. All they have to do is download 3M's Cloud Library app to a smartphone, PC, tablet or e-reader (except for Kindle).
3M expects its Cloud-based app to reach 1.4 million Minnesota library cardholders and give them access to 225,000 e-books from 300 publishers, including Random House. The technology is yet another revenue stream for 3M, a $30 billion company better known for Post-it Notes, Scotch tape and face masks.
"We have been in the library business for 42 years with Tattle Tape and security tape," but now it's time to do one better, said Tom Mercer, 3M's library systems digital business development leader.
With its new software, 3M acts as a virtual distributor. The company buys e-books from 300 publishers and then sells them to libraries. Libraries pay 3M anywhere from $5 to $80 for a single e-book. The publisher sets the prices, but 3M gets a slice of the proceeds.
3M worked with an unnamed outside firm and put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and market its new system.
Mercer and Matt Tempelis, global business manager for 3M's library systems, cobbled together a team of 30 people to gauge interest from librarians and publishers and to design, test and market e-reader technology nationwide.
Today, 3M's Cloud Library software and hardware -- including kiosks that allow patrons to search titles -- have been adopted in 90 counties in Michigan, Maryland, Colorado, Indiana and North Carolina. This summer, it added New York. Two weeks ago, it added libraries in Nebraska.
The company first piloted the program in St. Paul, went national, and recently rolled out the technology in other parts of the Twin Cities.
Last month's launch across Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties netted 25 more libraries. The goal, however, is to grow nationally and internationally.
"We're adding a new [U.S.] library every month," Mercer said. "It's very rewarding. There is a tremendous amount of excitement at 3M about the Cloud Library system."
3M's entrance into the e-book arena pits it directly against Overdrive, a well-known e-book software program that lets patrons "check out" five e-books at a time.
To compete, Mercer said 3M focused on a system that's simple to use. 3M is gaining fans.
"It's much easier," said Mary Wussow, cluster support manager of the Wescott Library in Eagan. The library has a reading bar lined with Nooks, Kindles, iPads, iPhones and other e-reader devices for patrons to try. 3M launched the service there last month.
The reading bar sits next to a 3M kiosk, where visitors can scan their library card, tap the screen and browse e-book catalogs by category, author or title.
Maureen Gormley, information services manager for the Dakota County Library System, said "I have used the 3M Cloud. Personally, I do find it more user-friendly than other e-book products."
The e-book movement is catching on. In October, Dakota residents checked out 11,654 e-books from the Wescott branch, up 60 percent from a year ago, Wussow said.
Mercer acknowledged that "we are a low percentage of that number. We are just getting off the ground." But the market potential is promising.
U.S. public libraries buy about $2 billion in collections and materials every year; about 5 percent of that today is digital, 3M's Tempelis said. "It's growing 20 to 40 percent every year."
But Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of F+W Media Digital Book World, noted that virtual libraries are still a very small market. Electronic books make up just $2 billion of the $14 billion physical and virtual book market, excluding textbooks.
Still the business holds a lot of promise for 3M. Skip Dye, Random House's chief library marketer, said, "With 3M already being on the operational side of libraries, they have a lot of creditability."
3M just scored a major partnership with Penguin Books, another "big six" publisher in the United States.
Citing security concerns, Penguin stopped distributing its 15,000 e-books to libraries last year. That upset librarians and customers who favored Penguin's electronic library collection. Penguin rejoined libraries this summer after a visit from 3M's Tempelis and Mercer.
Penguin selected 3M as its lone e-library distributor for a pilot program aimed at New York City public libraries.
If the pilot succeeds, Penguin said it will roll out its entire e-book collection to other 3M libraries.
"It's a coup for 3M to be able to work with Penguin exclusively," said Greenfield with Digital Book World.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725