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Meeting the digital demand

July 15, 2011 12:15 am

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England Run's branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library has space for people to meet, use computers and read in comfy chairs. lo071511libraryPC3.jpg

Customers use computers at the England Run library. The branch incorporates many modern touches and shows the way libraries are changing in the digital age. lo071511libraryPC2.jpg

The regional library offers an app so customers can download e-books to their smartphones.

BY JONAS BEALS

Twenty years ago, it was hard for most people to imagine a library functioning without a hulking beast of a card catalog.

Today's high school students probably have no idea what a card catalog is. Blame--or thank--technology. Computerized searches are simply faster and easier.

And technology is not done with libraries yet. As the public becomes more comfortable with digital information, libraries might soon add books to the endangered-species list.

"I think paper books will become a collector's thing, but not yet," said Chris Glover, Central Rappahannock Regional Library's assistant director for information technology.

Digital book formats, known as e-books, are rapidly gaining market share even as overall book sales have declined. According to the Association of American Publishers, April e-book sales increased 157 percent from 2010 to 2011. Total e-book sales jumped from $31.7 million in 2007 to $302.9 million in 2010.

Physical books will never disappear entirely, Glover said, but the digital revolution in books could mirror the music industry, where digital song downloads became the dominant distribution format in about 10 years.

Devices such as Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and the Apple iPad have given people the ability to easily store, carry and read entire virtual libraries. Even smartphones are viable e-book platforms. Demand is exploding.

Central Rappahannock Regional Library, with branches in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Stafford and Westmoreland counties, is positioning itself to serve those readers by taking another step into the digital future. CRRL Director Donna Cote and her staff have decided to make borrowing e-books easier.

An ongoing process

CRRL has served e-book readers since 1995. It's just that most people didn't want or need to read books online at that time. It was also inconvenient to read e-books then, as devices and distribution systems were clunky at best. Users were essentially tethered to a desktop or laptop if they wanted to read an e-book.

The 57,000 e-books now offered by the library are largely nonfiction titles that don't necessarily appeal to the casual reader. Even so, they have been a popular enough format for collection development manager Janice Black to consider adding more e-books.

Sometime this fall, the library will begin using a service called OverDrive that will provide current content from publishers including Random House, HarperCollins and Penguin. It could boost interest and the number of e-book borrowers.

"This summer is a real time of flux in this market," said Black. "It's all going to change."

She also said the change will be wonderful. "They seem to have things that are on the best-seller list," she said, noting the current e-book offerings make an "odd collection."

Another new provider, Axis 360, will soon allow CRRL users to borrow e-books that are heavy on pictures and illustrations. Full-color children's books and instructional books like cookbooks used to be the Achilles' heel of e-books, but devices such as the iPad have turned out to be popular platforms for reading them.

But library officials said that e-books are not just for young readers--users span the age spectrum.

becoming a downloader

When you go to a branch of CRRL and search for, say, "The Lost City of Z" by David Grann, the results can be overwhelming.

The library system has 19 copies of that book--11 in standard hardcover, two large-print editions, four sets of audiobook CDs and two Spanish translations. Once OverDrive comes online, there could be another copy: an e-book available for checkout.

So just how will that work?

In the big picture, it won't be any different than checking out any other book. If the book you want is available, you can download it. If someone else is reading it, you can reserve it.

If nothing else, e-books can make checking out books more convenient.

Adult-services coordinator Ann Haley said that the new library technology "enhances access for users."

To extend the comparison to the music industry, CRRL will essentially have an iTunes library for books. The files will be stored and downloaded in the open ePub format, and they can be read on compatible devices or computers. The difference is that the e-books will work like library books rather than music files: Users will not own the e-books after they download them.

Say you check out the only e-book copy of "The Lost City of Z" by downloading it. You have two weeks to read it. At the end of that two weeks, it disappears from your device and becomes available for the next library borrower.

Librarians and publishers determine how many people can simultaneously check out a given e-book, and how long the borrowing period is. Like traditional books, the more copies the library makes available for download, the more it costs the library.

"There's a universe of books," Caroline Parr, deputy director of the library, said. "Which ones can you afford?"

She said the cost of an e-book is similar to the cost of a regular book. Since there is not a separate e-book budget at CRRL, Black will have to balance e-book and traditional book acquisitions depending on demand, need and resources. Essentially, she will treat e-books as she does any other books in the collection.

And library officials prefer to talk about e-books like any other library item. The only difference is you don't have to visit the library to borrow them.

a virtual branch

Glover said that the library is working to position its website as a separate branch of the system. This makes sense when you consider that e-books don't sit on shelves. As the e-book collection grows, library customers will have less need to go to the library to check out books.

Library patrons can already check a book's availability and reserve it online, but they still have to make the trip to the branch if they want to read it. Not so with e-books.

Over time, the growth of e-books could change the nature of physical libraries. In some ways, it will only continue a shift that has already taken place.

Older libraries like the CRRL Headquarters branch on Caroline Street are packed with books. Volumes are stacked on towering shelves that dwarf the average person.

CRRL's newest branch--England Run in southern Stafford--looks more like a bookstore or a coffee shop than a traditional library. It was designed to be an attractive gathering space where people can meet, use computers, read in comfy chairs and check out books. There are even separate spaces for teens and kids, and a number of meeting rooms that can be reserved for group functions.

Parr said that libraries today are places where people come to spend time, and that shouldn't change with the rise of e-books.

What could change is the number of physical books in the library's collection, along with the time and manpower spent moving them around.

But what about the mere existence of libraries? Most people consume e-books by buying them from online vendors, and digital readers aren't known as platforms for borrowing books. What will happen when people easily can buy any book they want at any time?

Again, library officials prefer to equate e-books with regular books. Glover said that book publishers have been willing to work with libraries over the years because it is good business. Libraries promote literacy generally and even promote specific books or authors. That can increase general interest in books and boost sales.

Glover has no reason to believe that publishers won't treat e-books the same way. And while libraries may lend books for free, the publishers still collect a fee when libraries make e-books available to the public.

There is "still a symbiotic relationship" between libraries and publishers, he said.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036
Email: jbeals@freelancestar.com




Top 10 e-book downloads from Central Rappahannock Regional Library since 2009 (number of downloads in parentheses)

10--"Patton: As Military Commander" by Hubert Essame (63)

9--"Smitten" by Janet Evanovich (65)

8--"Good Poor Man's Wife" by Claudia Bushman (67)

7--"Naughty Neighbor" by Janet Evanovich (71)

6--"The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Reference Guide for Student Research" by Marie Rodgers (78)

5--"Judas at the Jockey Club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico" by William Beezley (87)

4--"How to Prepare for the Armed Forces Test--ASVAB" (109)

3--"Fugitive: A Novel" by Phillip Margolin (113)

2--"Nova's GRE Prep Course" by Jeff Kolby and Scott Thornburg (122)

1--"Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America" by Robert May (186)

A recent Associated Press report suggests localities across the country have responded to the recession by making drastic cuts to library budgets. Some have closed libraries altogether.

Not so in the Fredericksburg area, which has supported Central Rappahannock Regional Library through the tough economy. In fact, Stafford County built the England Run branch under budget while the economy was taking a beating.

Here are the last three annual budgets for CRRL. Some funding comes from the state, but most comes from the participating localities of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Stafford and Westmoreland counties.

2009--10

$9,716,033

2010--11

$10,309,055

2011--12

$10,625,077




Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.