By Jenny Shank
Public libraries are a major hub for Americans to gain access to e-books and other digital resources. But the nation's recent economic troubles and the transition to digital books are creating major difficulties for these public institutions.
Last month, the American Library Association released its annual State of America's Libraries Report, and many of its findings were grim. "Public libraries continue to be battered by a national economy whose recovery from the Great Recession is proving to be sluggish at best," the report concluded. Twenty-three of the 49 chief officers of state libraries surveyed indicated that their library systems faced budget cuts over the past two years. "For three years in a row, more than 40 percent of participating states have reported decreased public library funding," the report states.
While library budget cuts continue, demand for library services has soared. Lower income and unemployed patrons often turn to local libraries as their only source of Internet access.
At the same time, libraries have sought to accommodate Americans' ever-increasing demand for access to digital materials, a mission that has put them at odds with the publishing industry, which is struggling to retain its viability as many American readers shift toward reading books electronically and purchasing those titles from online retailers rather than traditional bookstores.
"In the end, it will be a matter of leadership and vision that will guide libraries through the current conditions," said Jorge Martinez, director of Information Systems for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which supports libraries through grants.
SPARRING OVER E-BOOKS
One of the biggest challenges libraries face in this new digital age is the friction in their relationship with publishers, caused largely by the advent of e-books.
Publishers argue that borrowing a printed book from a library requires a patron to physically visit the building and then return a few weeks later to bring it back, which is more difficult than purchasing it from an online retailer. When libraries allow patrons to download e-books through one click on a website, the convenience factor that might drive a reader to purchase a book is eliminated. Penguin Group recently blocked Kindle owners from the ability to download library e-books directly from their devices -- now they must transfer the e-book from the library site to a computer, and then to a Kindle.
Just as printed books wear out after a lot of use, some publishers require libraries to re-purchase the electronic version of popular books after a certain number of patrons view it. HarperCollins allows each copy of its e-books to be loaned up to 26 times, which a recent press release from the American Library Association described as "arbitrary." The libraries then must buy the book again at a lower price.
Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin do not sell e-book versions of their titles to libraries, while Hachette refuses to sell its newest e-books to libraries. Although many small presses allow unlimited e-book access to libraries, Random House is the only one of the "Big Six" publishers to do so -- and it recently increased its prices significantly, "by 100-200% in March 2012," according to the ALA's new report.
Most e-books come with embedded software that creates restrictions on how they can be used, such as allowing only one library patron to borrow each copy at a time. However, on April 25, Tor/Forge Books, an imprint of Macmillan that specializes in science fiction and other genres, announced that its entire catalog of books will be offered without DRM (digital rights management) software by July.
"Library organizations are intimately involved in the ongoing discussions about digital rights management systems and some of the copyright issues associated with e-books," said Michael Crandall, senior lecturer and chair of the Master of Science in Information Management Program at the University of Washington's Information School. "This is an area that will continue to evolve as the market becomes more widespread, since it impacts the way people use and share their books with each other and the way libraries are able to purchase and lend e-books."
Knight's Martinez said, "It will take a few years for the dust to settle. Laws and contracts always seem to lag behind new technological innovations. But, it will get settled. Librarians, library service organizations, and others are engaged in trying to make sure the eventual terms and conditions for the use of digital books are ones that are fair to all involved."
For the moment, however, nothing is settled, as two industries with their backs against the wall struggle to reach a compromise.
E-READER PETTING ZOOS, DIGITAL BOOKMOBILES
Despite libraries' impasse with publishers over restricted e-book use, many are forging ahead in the digital realm, offering patrons new services.
According to the ALA's recent report, "The proportion of U.S. libraries that made e-books available almost doubled over the past five years, climbing from 38.3 percent in 2007 to 67.2 percent in 2011."
Samantha Becker, the research project manager of the U.S. IMPACT Study at the University of Washington's Information School, noted, "The technology environment in libraries has provided a wonderful opportunity to preserve collections and enhance access to them through digitization, which many libraries are doing with out-of-print and local collections or digital artifacts. The Washington Rural Heritage project is a wonderful example."
That project allows users to search and access digital versions of material from libraries, heritage organizations, and private collections throughout the state of Washington. The Denver Public Library's Western History Department offers a similar resource for photographs, documents, and other materials related to the American West.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
A recent Pew Research Center report uncovered a digital divide in the use of e-books. People less likely to use e-books include Hispanics, those without a high school diploma, the unemployed, rural Americans, and those with household incomes of less than $30,000.
"Without libraries, the division would be even greater, since for many people they serve as the only access point for digital information and services," Crandall said. "Our study of library computer use found that for 22 percent of library computer users (age 14 and older), the library was their only source for access to computers and the Internet. This would suggest that similar restricted access would apply to e-books without libraries in the mix."
Martinez noted that libraries are finding creative ways to meet demand despite budget challenges. "In Philadelphia they are placing equipment and trainers in community organizations to make these valuable services available to their patrons at these sites, even when their regular locations are closed due to budget cutbacks," he said. "In other places, they have recreated the old bookmobile as mobile digital centers that take training, computers and Internet access to parts of their communities where there are no [library] buildings."
A recent Op-Ed put out by the Knight, Gates, and MacArthur foundations cited several other innovative uses of library resources:
"Bookmobiles have been supplemented by mobile computer labs -- visiting minority communities in St. Paul to teach digital literacy classes in Spanish, Hmong, and Somali, for example. In Dover, Mass., the library has installed QR codes around town that link signs at the market and playground to community information and services. Seattle Public Library offers live chats with librarians 24 hours a day getting answers to reference questions and live homework help."
It also mentioned an initiative at the main Chicago library called YOUmedia that "lets any teen with a city library card have in-house access to computers plus video and audio recording equipment to create their own content with the help of a mentor. At another YOUmedia space in Miami, workshops help teens think critically and creatively about their lives, by teaching them to publish an autobiographical digital story, or to visualize their favorite books."
Becker said that libraries are working hard to provide access to e-reading materials, as well as helping patrons enter into the e-reading marketplace by exposing them to e-reading devices through lending and device "petting zoos," and by helping them learn to use new devices in classes and one-on-one sessions with librarians.
Crandall said his study found that two-thirds of the library computer users asked a librarian for help in using the technology. "The ability to use the new technology may seem intuitive to many," he said, "but clearly for many others it is not, and having a community resource that is able to help people understand how to use digital technology and information, and why they might want to use it to improve the quality of their lives is something that libraries have taken on as a transformation of their traditional mission."
Martinez said the Knight Foundation's library funding will focus on "innovative projects and leaders that help to show what the library of tomorrow should be."
The mission and responsibilities of libraries may be in flux due to Americans' ever-increasing use of digital information sources, but Becker points out that it's the same as it ever was: "Libraries have long been at the front lines of providing people with access to new formats for reading and new technology, whether when switching from scrolls to the familiar book format, to newer trends in e-reading."
Jenny Shank is the author of the novel "The Ringer" (The Permanent Press, 2011), a finalist for the Reading the West Book Awards. Her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Poets & Writers Magazine, Bust, Dallas Morning News, High Country News and The Onion.