Public libraries are part of a great democratic tradition, increasing literacy, offering access to information, enhancing creativity, imagination, empathy, wonder… I buy all that. Libraries are enormously important. But what happens to them as more and more publications shift to e-versions? How do libraries preserve access? Should they clear out more shelves for computer terminals? Loan e-readers instead of print books? Can’t we convert those gorgeous old library buildings into condos now?

Part 3: Libraries

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways you can support your local public library is to use it. Thus, no series on socially conscious ebook purchasing can be complete without a conversation about libraries. Ebook borrowing is a great alternative to online ebook shopping.

Will bookshelves soon go the way of the card catalog?

Will bookshelves soon go the way of the card catalog?

The first bookless public libraries have already opened. Traditional libraries are rapidly expanding ebook holdings and most library card holders can now access an incredible array of free ebooks.

I am very excited that several members of the awesome staff of the Pima County Public Library system in Arizona (serving the Tucson area, where much of my novel, Drowning Cactusis set) agreed to answer my many questions about libraries and ebooks. Please welcome Kenya Johnson, Community Relations Manager, Karyn Prechtel, Deputy Director of Public Services, Richard DiRusso, Manager of the Collection Development Office, and Sherrie Baltes, Web Editor. Quite a line up!

You’ve probably heard that a bookless library has opened in the San Antonia area, the Bexar Bibliotech. This library provides stripped down e-readers to patrons and access to e0book holdings as well as computer terminals. Do you think we’ll see more bookless libraries in the future? I hear a lot of people bemoaning society’s move from contemplative reading of books and newspapers to quick data downloads via tweets and podcasts. Are people still reading books? Are ebooks helping or hurting society’s literacy?

Karyn: People are still reading books! Pima County Public Library customers have been checking out books at a consistent rate over the last 10 years – regardless of format. Some patrons are moving to reading electronic books exclusively, while many others will read either print or electronic books – whichever is available first.

In many ways, eBooks enhance literacy and learning opportunities. They are changing the way readers interact with the written word – many e-reader devices allow for note taking, underlining or highlighting of text, and have built-in dictionaries. Literacy in the digital age requires not only the ability to understand the printed word on paper. Visually literate students must be able to interpret, understand and communicate fluently through words in print and digital formats (“Keep Teens Reading for Information and Entertainment”, Library Media Connection, Nov/Dec 2013, vol. 32, Issue 3). Similarly, enhanced eBooks can engage young children with their interactive elements and can attract reluctant readers.

I understand the Pima County Library system opened a bookless library back in 2002, but that the experiment was short-lived. Can you tell me a bit about it? Did the bookless library focus on ebooks, or was it mostly a venue for computer usage and other library services?

Kenya: The Santa Rosa Learning Center Library was part of the HOPE VI Barrio Santa Rosa Neighborhood Center Project funded by the City of Tucson in the late 1990s. They initially planned and designed a state-of-the-art computer center for the adults who lived in the area to provide a comprehensive range of services, including computer literacy job training classes, Web-based resources, and access to the Internet. The library was not part of this original plan or design, so there weren’t any books when the facility opened in 2002. At that time, the library functioned as a place where our patrons could pick up reserves. That was it.

It was the community – the people who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods – that requested that print books be added to the library. They expected books, and they wanted books. Today, the Santa Rosa Branch Library provides everything you would want to see in your library.

Library shelvesMany people find books by browsing the shelves of the library or speaking with librarians. How do you suggest readers “shop” for ebooks in the Pima County library system?

Sherrie: There’s really not a big difference when it comes to looking for eBooks. It’s just a different format. If a friend recommends a book to you, or you see a book review in The New York Times, you can easily find out if we own it in the eBook format. We have two eBook services available to our patrons: OverDrive and OneClickdigital. People can start by taking a look at our eBooks and Digital Media page. From there you can access one of the services, and they both offer browsing and searching in their sites.

A lot of readers I speak to simply can’t figure out how to get ebooks from the library. Are librarians in Pima County offering assistance with this? Any tips?

Kenya: We know that ebooks aren’t easy for everyone to figure out, but we’re here to help. Our library offers free classes and drop-in sessions for using eReaders and downloading eBooks and audiobooks. Anyone can take a look at our online calendar to see where and when they can some help in-person.

Sherrie: If you can’t get into a class, contact your closest library and see what help they can offer in person. We also have a help page on our website that people can use if they can’t make it to one of our libraries.

Many of our staff members are eBook users themselves and can help walk you through the process.

Is one e-reading device easier to use at the Pima County Library than others? The Kindle, for example, or Nook?

Sherrie: It’s really a personal choice. However, things can change at a moment’s notice with technology. Right now, one e-reader may be easier to use than others. People like using their tablets and their smartphones for e-reading as well.

The downloading process for eBooks can be complicated and frustrating for people, but the classes that we offer might help you determine which device would be easier for you.

Libraries, of course, always have to work within budget constraints. Are ebooks an added burden for library systems, or are they a cost effective way of increasing library holdings? Should Pima County readers expect fewer books on shelves and more e-reader holdings in the coming years? Will we see another bookless library in the Tucson area?

Richard: I wouldn’t say that eBooks are a cost savings or a burden; they just are a format that people expect or want us to carry. When formats become obsolete or nearly obsolete that is when, in my opinion, they become a burden.

We no longer carry audiobooks on cassette or VHS videos. Maintaining those formats had become a burden since we couldn’t replace them, yet we still had to transport and house them.

Digital formats are the wave of the future. How we incorporate them into our existing collections will play a large role in keeping the library relevant to our communities.

Thank you, Kenya, Karyn, Richard and Sherrie.

Bexar Bibliotech is getting a lot of press for pioneering the bookless library, but, as far as I can tell, the Santa Rosa Learning Center was one of the very first. Here are some other library firsts (as claimed by the libraries listed below):

  • Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts: first publicly supported free municipal library in the world.
  • Peterborough Public Library, Peterborough, New Hampshire: Oldest free public library in the world supported by taxation.
  • The Sturgis Library, Barnstable, Massachusetts: oldest building housing a public library in the United States.
  • Wayland Public Library, Wayland, Massachusetts: first public library in Massachusetts, second free public library in the United States, and first library to grant me a library card.