Soon it will be possible for library patrons anywhere in the seven-county metro to check out e-books, eMagazines and digital audio books from any of the counties' library systems with just one app.

The convergence of the county libraries' digital collections, along with the St. Paul Public Library, is already underway, a move library directors say will make it easier for people to find what they're looking for while also streamlining a system that was divided between competing platforms.

"For our users in St. Paul this is a move to a one-stop app for e-books, audio books and eMagazines," said Catherine Penkert, St. Paul Public Library director.

The chosen app is called Libby, from a company called Overdrive, which is already in use at some 65,000 libraries and schools in 84 countries around the world.

The decision came down to customer preference, said Scott Vrieze, executive director of the Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA).

Patrons at some libraries were already using Overdrive to check out some materials, including in Hennepin and Washington counties and the St. Paul Public Library. The remaining five county library systems — Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Ramsey and Scott — used a combination of Bibliotheca's cloud library platform and another platform from RBdigital.

The confusion for patrons was that they didn't always know which app would have the digital content they were looking for. At the St. Paul Public Library, for example, patrons needed to search both Overdrive and the cloud library app to see the complete e-book collection. A third app was needed for digital audiobooks and eMagazines. Everything will now be searchable on Libby, Penkert said.

"We know that our users love using their phone or their tablet as their library," she said. "During the pandemic, we know that these resources are more important than ever."

E-books have been hugely popular during the pandemic, with libraries reporting circulation growth of 30 to 50% or even more over the past year. In Scott County, Library Director Jake Grussing said digital circulation roughly doubled in 2020.

The libraries negotiated with their vendors to migrate all of their digital content to Overdrive so they won't have to purchase new copies of materials they already own on other platforms, Vrieze said.

MELSA will pay an $18,000 annual fee to Overdrive for hosting the libraries' digital collections, an annual savings of $172,000 compared to paying three vendors. The agency puts some $500,000 a year into buying new e-books and digital audio books, and its digital collection will augment counties' library offerings, Vrieze said.

For patrons who were already using Overdrive's Libby app, nothing will change other than that they'll have access to a larger collection once the suburban counties finish migrating into the system in the coming weeks. Patrons of the Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Ramsey and Scott County libraries will need to download the Libby or Overdrive app and may need to place new holds on e-books they were in line to check out.

Vrieze said the new plan should result in more digital offerings per patron, even if it means each county will have more people checking out materials.

"Of course we're eager to have folks back into the physical library and connecting with our customers in that way," Grussing said, "but we're happy to see the additional use, and a lot of new users as well."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329