I visited my local library the other day and it wasn’t exactly a hive of activity. The Internet and the plethora of technologies capable of distributing its content has forced a decline in activity at your local branch. But a scheme designed to embrace modern alternatives to the printed book could breathe new life back into the service. However, local libraries in the UK are now subsidizing conventional methods by offering eBook rentals online.

The service works by offering access to a rentals web site where readers can download books for free, which are then automatically deleted 14 days later, which saves the problem of chasing up overdue books and handing out late fines. Currently, Essex, Luton and Windsor & Maidenhead are offering the service, with Hampshire, Liverpool and Norfolk looking to get involved in the near future.

Luton library representative Fiona Marriot highlights the increasing interest in the scheme, stating "In recent weeks the number of eBook downloads has been increasing fast, and there are people emailing us from all over the country and even abroad asking if they can join as members online." Indeed, more than 250 new users have signed up to get involved in the Luton area, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that only local residents can join the service.

eBooks can obviously be transferred to most eBook readers (though unfortunately not Amazon’s Kindle, which uses proprietary software), and with Asus announcing the world’s cheapest last month and other notable parties such as Barnes & Noble and Plastic Logic getting involved, this seems like a market that’s clearly on the up.

Former president of The Society of Chief Librarians Tory Durcan states "Book issues have seriously declined in recent years. This is an exciting development. These are not going to replace the paper book, they are as well as." He also cites additional advantages for older readers due to the ability to control the print size using an electronic reader, and may even consider lending devices to older, housebound residents.

The scheme looks to redress figures recently announced by the department of Culture, Media and Sport, which state that annual library visits have dropped from 302 million 10 years ago to 280 million and are continuing to fall sharply. So although the new service may help increase the number of library visits, they are likely to be of the virtual kind.