A few years ago, Mike Caines realized he didn’t need to keep spending money to get a copy of the books he wanted to read. What he needed was a library card.

Then he got hooked on audio books as a way to pass the time while commuting from his home in Forest Park to his office in the city. Caines, 57, enjoyed the convenience of downloading his favorite titles to an MP3 player, but again found himself spending money. And that’s when he began asking the Forest Park Public Library to look into an online lending program for digital titles.

“I like the library, and it’s supported by taxes already, so why not take advantage of it,” Caines said.

In June, the library debuted a collection of free audio books that members can access without having to trek across town. Through its Web site, the library can link patrons to an online catalogue created exclusively for a consortium of nine area libraries, including Forest Park’s. Card holders simply type in their library card number and download a copy of the book they’re looking for. There is no cost to users.

“You’re just borrowing it, just like if you went to the library,” Ben Haines, the reference and technology librarian for Forest Park, said.

The Web site, www.mediaondemand.org, carries more than 360 titles and more will likely be added as the consortium gets its feet wet. First-time users may be surprised, however, to see how closely the program mirrors the traditional library experience. According to Haines, book publishers haven’t fully embraced the idea of providing libraries with audio books that can be downloaded. The business model of selling individual copies conflicts with selling one copy that is repeatedly loaned. So, said Haines, the availability of some titles will vary.

Much like a library would carry a limited number of copies of a particular book, there may a limited number of copies available for downloading. Patrons may have to wait until a digital copy is “returned.”

The library’s online audio books are typically loaned to a patron for one to two weeks, according to Haines. The book is returned automatically by the program’s software.

Rodger Brayden, the library’s director, said it will take a few years to determine whether digital lending makes good fiscal sense, though there appear to be some obvious advantages. Too, the startup costs for the Forest Park library totaled only $3,000.

“Because our financial position is better than it was three years ago, we’re able to do some things like this,” Brayden said.

In large part, the decision to offer an online catalogue of audio books is based on the assumption that the habits of many library users will follow an arc similar to Caines’, who began asking about this type of program a year ago. Technology has fueled the demand for convenience and, hopefully, said Haines, this feature will meet it.

For a link to the online catalogue, visit the library’s Web site at www.fppl.org.