The new terminals sit silently aglow in the Dakota County libraries these days. Row upon row of book covers await the touch of your fingertip. Each one seems to whisper, I am the future, come try me.
Occasionally people do, said librarian Deborah Monn, though for the moment they are functioning mostly as marketing tools -- reminding people of the existence of free library e-books.
The handheld device you got for Christmas may well have been ordered online, and the borrowing of books, too, is more and more a matter of a few taps on a screen.
"Our collection is small, around 1,800 copies, but growing," said Cindy Purser, associate director of the Scott County libraries. "And we know the number of devices arriving in homes is growing.
"In fact, we'll offer five informational sessions in January for people who maybe got that tablet for Christmas and are thinking, 'How do I do it?'"
The paradox of the amazing, tap-tap 24/7 access folks now have to e-books in their collection, librarians admit, is that e-borrowing does take some figuring out.
No lessons were ever needed on how to make it to the library and linger in the aisles. But the Scott system's website directs you to a bewildering array of short videos aimed at hand-holding you through the process of borrowing via your handheld.
Dakota, meanwhile, has a whole new delivery system for e-books in the form of 3M's "Cloud Library."
If it seems odd for a private company to have planted itself quite this visibly amid a public setting, just wait -- it gets even odder once you start using it.
For instance, once you choose a book to peek at, 3M offers you a set of similar books on a sidebar that appears on-screen. But depending on which one you choose, the system may spit out the following message:
"This book is unfortunately not available in your library. If you want your library to purchase this book, please put this book onto your wish list."
It's as if the shelves were full of empty jackets, but you didn't know that till you reached for one.
A 3M spokeswoman said she didn't know that happened, but said it does allow libraries to home in on books users truly want, versus guessing.
OverDrive, a system used in both Scott and Dakota, also amounts to a public-private partnership, this time involving Amazon. And Amazon also is known to tap a library user on the shoulder with an offer to sell. When you have a Kindle, Amazon handles the loan. And when the borrowing period is over, Amazon may offer to sell you an e-copy of the book.
All in all, said Eric Hellman, a New Jersey-based blogger who comments on the industry, if 3M's system has its flaws, "a lot of people have been waiting for 3M."
"OverDrive, in public libraries, is the dominant player," he explained, serving the giant Hennepin County system among others. "But 3M has a lot of history working with libraries and everyone takes them very seriously, mostly because everyone recognizes a need for competition for OverDrive."
Compared to OverDrive, 3M's system has a classy feel and an intuitive ease. You're presented with rows of books on digital shelves and can navigate quickly from history to British history or U.S. history, or from cooking to different national cuisines.
But once you get into the Dakota system, there often isn't much of a there there. What looks like a whole genre of books being offered is sometimes just one book.
"The thing about content," Hellman said, "it depends on what that library system has acquired. They may have a lot of content or they may not."
If Dakota's 3M system feels skimpy in spots, the latest annual reports available from the state suggest that Dakota offers far more content overall. Dakota is admittedly bigger than Scott, but it offers nearly 20,000 more e-books -- far out of proportion to the difference in size.
"One reason the number of e-books is so much lower than Dakota County," said Scott's director, Vanessa Birdsey, "is that we had just started collecting e-books in 2011 [when the latest reports were compiled], and we hadn't had time to build our collection. We are building our collection more slowly than anticipated, in part because of the increase in the prices for e-books sold to libraries, but we are building our collection carefully, based on what our customers read. We also have a plan to install additional public PCs and laptops in our larger libraries."
Dakota's director, Ken Behringer, said he's keenly aware of the generous support he receives. "Having served in other settings, I truly appreciate the commitment that Dakota County commissioners, administration and residents place on quality library operations."
If anyone in Scott imagines the solution is just to visit Dakota's site instead, think again -- in e-books, unlike with real books, you have to live there in order to borrow.
In both counties, these systems are being fairly heavily used, librarians say.
The initial burst of publicity surrounding the Fifty Shades series suggested that so-called "mommy porn" -- erotic books snapped up by women -- was being accelerated by e-books. Online downloads meant readers could obtain something naughty on the sly, versus actually presenting the book to a librarian or sales clerk. And in fact, that series is one of the most requested titles in Scott County.
"The Fifty Shades trilogy -- all three books in one e-book -- has 90 people on our waiting list at the moment," Purser said the other day.
"We like it," she added, "that people are reading."
The only title more popular, with 128 patrons on the waiting list when Purser took a peek, was "Gone Girl," described by Slate.com as a "thriller about a marriage gone toxic ... seductively corrupt."
After those two sizzling waiting list favorites, she said, "it drops a fair amount."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285