Untold numbers of people around Northern Virginia will awake Christmas morning and unwrap Nooks, Kindles and other kinds of e-readers and tablets and, a short time later, they will use all of those devices to stress -- or even crash -- computer servers in local libraries across the region.

Libraries, having learned from experience, are bracing this year to handle that Christmas computer crush.

"We learned the hard way that we needed to be better prepared," said Mary Mulrenan, the Fairfax County Public Library system's marketing director.

Fairfax not only had its computer crashed by the heavy holiday traffic but found its librarians inundated with questions from new e-reader owners who flocked to the libraries with a lot of questions about their new devices that the librarians can't answer, said Elizabeth Rhodes, the Fairfax system's collection services coordinator.

How to check e-books out of the library
1. Register your e-reader online and get a library card.
2. Visit the e-collection on the library's website.
3. Search titles.
4. Place a hold on a book.
5. Enter your library card number.
6. Download the book or join the v

Fairfax libraries had more than 1,500 digital items downloaded last Christmas, about 500 more than its computers handle on the average day. To cope with the seasonal deluge, Fairfax libraries this year will offer classes to e-reader owners and order more e-books to keep up with demand.

Last year alone, Fairfax County Public Libraries customers downloaded 166,157 e-books, an 81 percent increase from 2010. Librarians attribute the increase to the gaining popularity of digital readers, as now 1-in-6 Americans own or use the devices, studies show.

The e-books have grown in popularity to the point that there are now waiting lists with hundreds of names for some titles. Fairfax libraries recently ordered 26 print and 16 e-book copies of James Patterson's new novel, "Private Berlin," which won't be out until January. But already there are 148 people waiting to read the e-book version.

Only one person can use an e-book at a time, so the library puts the same time limit on the e-books as on traditional books: three weeks. To enforce the restriction and allow books to go back into circulation more quickly, the library erases the book from a patron's device after 21 days, Mulrenan said.

Other regional libraries, including the D.C. Public Library, are reporting a similar increase in demand for e-books.

"We've had very continuous high use and a growing demand for e-books and all things digital," said Elissa Miller, the District's associate director for collections.

District libraries recorded 22,000 overall e-book downloads between last December and January, 389 of which occurred on Christmas Day, Miller said. The overall number of e-books checked out from the system has nearly quadrupled since fiscal 2010, she said.

But the sudden shift toward digital books isn't all bad news for readers who still enjoy hard copies of novels. D.C. libraries are reporting an increased demand for those, as well.

"I don't see print going away [any time soon]," Miller said.