Libraries staying relevant
by Mark Ledbetter
Area library directors agree that digital technology and e-books have provided libraries with another way to serve their patrons.

“We have to stay relevant to our people,” said Dr. Shirley Spears, director of the B.B. Comer Memorial Library in Sylacauga.

“The library is changing, kind of evolving like everything else,” said Barbara Rich, director of Childersburg’s Earle A. Rainwater Memorial Library.

Recent years have seen an increased market for e-books, digital book-length publications read by electronic devices.

Spears said she was astonished at the types of devices people are using to download e-books. They are not only using Kindle, Nook and Sony Readers, they are also able to download e-books to their smart phones.

Libraries that offer e-books are somewhat limited in what they can offer their patrons. Limited titles libraries can offer and the cost of purchasing a license from publishing houses present problems.

Individuals can purchase e-books and download them for much less than what libraries pay for services. Licenses can cost libraries from $60 to $80.

Added to that cost is a requirement from publishers that libraries renew their licenses after a quota of downloads is met.

Spears said with limited budgets for book purchases, it is less expensive investing in “hard copies” than paying for licenses for books you don’t own.

Spears said Comer Library saw an increase in requests for e-books after the 2011 Christmas season.

“We had a deluge of requests in January,” she said. “People got readers for Christmas, so we started looking to join a consortium; it was the best way we could get into the game.”

Comer’s research led them to Camellia Net, “Alabama’s Virtual Library.” Spears said the library joined the consortium and shares books offered by Camellia Net with 25 other libraries.

Sharing with so many libraries has its limitations. Spears recommends patrons reserve five titles because their first request may not be available. An advantage to this, she said, is often a second or third request is available and though it may not be their first choice, the reader often has access to books they wouldn’t otherwise read.

Spears said Comer Library paid $3,000 to join the consortium. To facilitate and purchase e-book licenses, the library held private fundraisers, received private donations, and received a Library Services and Technology Acts grant of $10,000. Once funds were received, the library was able to move forward with its e-book program.

Like the other libraries, Pell City Public Library director Danny Stewart said patrons with a library card and pin number can access the library’s website and download e-books. He said he thinks e-books only affect 5 to 10 percent of patrons.

Vickie Harkins, director of the Armstrong-Osborne Public Library in Talladega, said that although the library hasn’t had many requests for e-books, paper work for e-book access has started.

“I hope to have the system up soon,” Harkins said.

“I think e-books are wonderful, really, really great,” said Rich, who owns a Kindle. “They are convenient when traveling, never out of books, and can be accessed anywhere, or you can purchase them on”

Spears said she isn’t overly concerned about e-books making books obsolete.

“People are going to continue to sit down with their children or grandchildren with a book,” she said.

While libraries continue to develop their e-book services, digital technology provided by computers and the Internet has become an important part of what libraries can offer patrons.

A release from the Information Policy and Access Center says libraries are providing a vital link between the government and citizens. Many services and resources are becoming digital only, the release states, and public libraries serve as critical community gateways to electronic government.

According to a survey by IPAC, 100 percent of Alabama’s public libraries help people access and use employment resources, including job searches, creating resumes and submitting applications.

The survey reports 98 percent of Alabama’s public libraries serve as a bridge between government and its services, and assist in helping people complete online government forms.

Public libraries are often the only free source of Internet in communities.

Rich estimates 65 percent of Rainwater’s patrons come to the library to use computers for access to the internet.

“With the economy like it is, people are completing employment applications, updating resumes,” Stewart said. “For some employers, online is the only way to apply for a job.”

Nelda Vogel, Comer’s tech services librarian, said the services provided are critical to many in filing for unemployment and, in some cases, printing W-2 forms. She said some small businesses access their computers to file quarterly taxes.

Vogel said many people are taking advantage of distance learning. She said one woman taking classes in Birmingham can now access materials locally, saving the cost of travel and time.

Harkins said Talladega’s computer lab is usually full, with people taking on-line classes, checking on e-mails, etc. “How did we get by without computers?” she asked.

Harkins said the lab is an asset because it gives people access to the Internet who might not otherwise have it.

Harkins said Talladega’s busiest days are Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the busiest time during the day is during lunch.

Talladega’s computer lab has 14 computers, with someone on staff to maintain them daily.

The only negative impact digital technology has had on libraries is that people are no longer using the library for reference materials.

Stewart said the Alabama Virtual Library website has “a world of information” available to people at home or in other locations.

“I’ve seen a difference in the number of reference requests. It has dropped off,” he said.

“Digital technology and devices have had an impact on our culture,” Spears said, and a new term describing kids today is “digital natives.”

“We know what they want is to read technical books, and it is important to read,” Spears said. “Reading is foundational to learning.”

© 2013