The Jewish Community Library has made books available for tablets, Kindles and other devices. (MAYA MIRSKY)
The Jewish Community Library has made books available for tablets, Kindles and other devices. (MAYA MIRSKY)

Serendipitous timing: S.F. Jewish library launches ebook program

Jews stuck inside these days now have something new to keep them occupied. The Jewish Community Library in San Francisco has just launched its ebook and audiobook collection, which will let library patrons download books at home.

It’s fortuitous timing, although coincidental.

“We were definitely not designing this with self-quarantine in mind!” said director Howard Freedman, who writes the monthly J. books column “Off the Shelf.”

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

He said the official launch date had been planned for April 1, but with the system up and running, JCL and Jewish LearningWorks staff are hoping people sheltering at home could use the resource.

The collection is a curated range of around 300 ebooks and audiobooks selected by staff, ranging from fiction to history to biography to religious topics. All of them can be checked out for free.

“The idea is to sort of mimic the larger collection at the Jewish Community Library,” Freedman said.

Anyone with borrowing privileges at the JCL can also borrow ebooks and audiobooks — a maximum of two at a time — through the Overdrive or Libby applications, which require either a computer, a tablet, an ebook reader like a Kindle or a smartphone (along with an internet connection, as needed).

There are detailed instructions on the JCL website on how to set up a device for borrowing.

It’s also easy to apply for library privileges, which require filling out a form online and having a Bay Area address (no proof of Jewish identity is required).

“It’s open to anybody in the Bay Area,” Freedman said.

Kathleen Friedlander and her husband were among the first people to try it out. It was something new for them.

“Before this started, I had never done ebooks,” the San Francisco resident said. “Ever.”

She calls herself “the most techno-unsavvy,” but said the process of setting up her iPad to borrow books was simple. “I had no problems, and Libby magically appeared,” she said, calling the app “an absolute delight.”

“It keeps your page,” she said. “You can look up words.”

The virtual library program is something Freedman has wanted to do for a long time, in order to make it easier for people to borrow from the JCL’s extensive collection of Jewish books (the library’s overall circulating collection includes more than 37,000 books, periodicals, CDS and DVDs that span a “huge range of Jewish topics and perspectives,” says the JCL website).

It’s a service people have asked for, he said.

“We’ve just heard enough calls from enough people,” he said.

But until now, it’s just been too expensive. The high cost is part of the nature of the ebook publishing industry.

“People don’t generally understand that [public] libraries [that offer ebooks] have to purchase each title individually,” he said. The average cost of a title is $60.

Although ebooks and audiobooks are just digital files, publishers price them high and usually limit them so that only one can be used at once. They also can’t be copied or shared.

We’re expanding our catalogue sooner than I anticipated because the demand is so great and the need is there.

But a coalition with the Sperber Community Library at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles made this project more cost-effective. Funding also came from the Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund and the Friends of the Jewish Community Library.

The JCL’s physical library in San Francisco’s Fillmore District closed down on March 16, joining other libraries in the Bay Area cities that shuttered their doors to keep people from congregating and potentially spreading coronavirus.

“A lot of people were left at a loss for reading material,” Freedman said.

That made the online library launch especially good timing, according to David Waksberg, head of Jewish LearningWorks, which operates the JCL.

“When we’re all hunkering down, sheltering in place, books are great!” Waksberg said.

He added that the virtual library is in line with the mission of the JCL to facilitate conversation through events, lectures, author talks and book groups.

“We can’t do that [in person] right now, so we might at last make an effort to give people access to Jewish literature,” he added.

And even though JCL’s location is closed, staff are still ready to help.

“Even though these are electronic books, the library staff is still absolutely available to make recommendations and talk about books with patrons,” Freedman said. Those with questions can contact JCL’s reader services librarian Rose Katz at rkatz@jewishlearningworks.org or library@jewishlearningworks.org.

Friedlander said she can’t say enough good things about the online library.

Not only is it giving her and her husband something to read during the enforced time at home, but she also anticipates continuing to use ebooks when she’s out and about because her tablet is light, she said. She also appreciates, on behalf of her 93-year-old mother-in-law, the way print can be enlarged for people with eyesight problems.

“There are so many benefits,” she said.

Waksberg said the program is off to such a good start that the library already is starting to buy more ebooks and audiobooks.

“We’re expanding our catalogue sooner than I anticipated because the demand is so great and the need is there,” he said.

That’s certainly true in the Friedlander home, where it looks like ebooks aren’t going anywhere.

“My husband says now we need a second iPad,” Friedlander said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.