An ebook reader is being pulled off a shelf with physical books

Library Love

Celebrating 20 years of ebooks with a history of how it began


May 22, 2023

No one could have predicted the impact technology has had on our world in the last 20 years. Carrying around a palm-sized personal computer and making video calls was previously only seen in movies. But there were many at the forefront of the changes about to take place in the new millennium, including a team of forward-thinking librarians at the Cleveland Public Library.

Librarians have always had their finger on the pulse of what readers want next, and this group was no different. Librarians Patricia Lowrey, Cindy Orr, Sari Feldman and Tracy Strobel were ahead of their time and saw the possibility and potential of ebook and audiobook lending in libraries. Directing an early ebook development team at OverDrive, they helped to build and launch what would become the first popular ebook and audiobook borrowing service from a library—four years before Kindle was introduced and seven years before iPads and tablets became popular.

At the time, these “online libraries” were just making their debut, and gaining attention from the media, as evidenced by this "NBC News" clip from 2003. While the Cleveland Public Library may have been the first to launch a digital collection, others quickly followed. Now, over 22,000 public libraries offer readers access to ebooks, audiobooks, magazines and comics through Libby, the library reading app.

A timeline of digital library milestones:

A timeline of digital library milestones
  • 2003: 1st public library launched digital lending library: Cleveland Public Library
  • 2007: One millionth digital book loaned by public libraries
  • 2011: OverDrive platform and Amazon launched Kindle compatibility for library ebooks in the U.S.
  • 2017: Libby, the award-winning library reading app, launched
  • 2018: One billionth digital book checked out through all OverDrive platforms
  • 2022: Los Angeles Public Library first to reach 10 million digital checkouts in calendar year
  • 2023: One billionth digital book checked out through Libby

While much has changed in the last 20 years, much has stayed the same, too. A valid library card is still all you need to access your library’s digital collection. There are still no subscriptions. Your library continues to choose the titles available in your local collection. No one has ever been charged a late fee (and no books have ever been returned late, either!). And today, accessing a book is easier than ever through Libby, thanks to the innovative librarians that transformed how we read and helped put books into the hands of millions of readers.

Want to know what’s to come in the next 20 years? Just ask a librarian.


About the Author

Annie Suhy has been working in the book industry since 2006. When she’s not working, practicing yoga or petting cats, she’s doing paint-by-numbers or buying more plants. An avid poetry fan, her favorite collection is "The Splinter Factory" by Jeffrey McDaniel.


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