The demand for electronic books is growing, but few libraries in the North Country have been able to make them available to their patrons yet.
Local librarians say that's because of the cost and copyright issues associated with trying to acquire e-books and loan them to people for use on their Kindle, iPad or other e-reader.
"Many libraries can't buy an electronic version of a book because they're very expensive. You only get so many uses, and there's all kinds of copyright issues," said Jim Britell, a trustee of the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System and president of the Wead Library in Malone. "So there's not a good solution as to how libraries are going to be able to deliver e-books; yet that is the way more and more people want to read books."
John Omohundro reaches for a book during a visit Tuesday to the Saranac Lake Free Library.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The challenge of trying to offer e-books comes at a time when the state and many local governments have cut funding to libraries and library systems. In some cases, that has led to cutbacks in services. CEFLS, which serves and supports more than 30 public libraries in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, is shutting down its bookmobile service at the end of the year.
"It was costing us over $130,000 a year, and our budget was cut over $200,000," said CEFLS Director Ewa Jankowska. "It was a very hard decision to make, but there was just no other way."
Library advocates say they need to do a better job of convincing lawmakers and the public that libraries deserve their financial support, especially given the demands they are facing to add or expand services.
Hard times for hard copies?
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More than two thirds of public libraries now offer free e-book downloads, according to the American Library Association. Many of them have been building their e-book catalogs through a pay subscription service called OverDrive.
Yet few if any of the more than 30 libraries in the Clinton-Essex-Franklin system have e-books available for download, despite the growing demand for them.
Keene Valley Library Director Karen Glass said many of her patrons, particularly those who have been given Kindle or Nook e-readers as Christmas or birthday presents, have been asking when the library will have e-books available for download. But she says there's no way her library could afford to do that on its own.
"Impossible," she said. "It's like $16,000 to $18,000 for the subscription service; then you still have to buy the books on top of that. That's pretty prohibitive."
Many local libraries are looking to CEFLS to lead the way, but Jankowska said the cost of the subscription service, as well as having to buy individual e-books, is too steep, "especially when our funding was cut six times in the last three years."
However, Jankowska said she's looking at other options, such as partnering with the neighboring North Country Library System, which has an e-book subscription service.
"We're waiting for a quote from OverDrive to see if we can join in," Jankowska said. "We'd also need to bring some books in. We have a small grant, and we could use that to buy a core collection."
How does it work?
Borrowing an e-book from a library is not much different from borrowing a print book, apart from the fact that library users don't have to physically go to the library to pick them up. E-books can be downloaded from the library's website onto a mobile device, personal computer or e-reader.
E-books are typically available to one user at a time. After three weeks, the user's right to read an e-book expires and they no longer have access to the book.
"Many times libraries will buy an e-book subscription that has maybe 500 books in it," said John Hammond, director of the Northern New York Library Network. "In many cases there are waiting lists to download a book because there are single-use licenses and you've got to wait for the guy ahead of you to finish it."
Another issue is that some publishers aren't making e-books available to public libraries. Others are restricting the number of times a library can check out a single copy of an e-book.
"The publishers figured out that a paper book is checked out maybe 26 times," Jankowska said. "I don't know how they got that number, but after an e-book is read 26 times, the library would have to buy the book again."
These costs have librarians worried that money will have to be diverted from acquiring hard copy books to obtain e-books or tap into an e-book subscription service.
"It's going to be difficult to decide how much of the budget will go for paper books and how much will go for e-books," said Linda Auclair, director of the Goff-Nelson Memorial Library in Tupper Lake.
Opinions about e-books seem to be split among library patrons. Auclair said some people are really interested in the new technology while others are "resistant."
"The older patrons or the non-tech-savvy folks - they just want to pick up a book and read it," she said.
Rick Gombas, a seasonal Saranac Lake resident, said he's one of those people. He said he tried a Kindle that the Saranac Lake Free Library has for in-library use but didn't like it at all.
"It's too complicated," Gombas said. "I tried reading the New York Times on it, and it just doesn't work out as easily as a hard copy you can hold in your hands. There's always going to be old-timers like me who like to hold books and newspapers in their hands and thumb through them."
Other library patrons say they are willing to give e-readers a try or are already using them.
"I hear really good things about the Kindle and the iPad from people who used to be against it but then they caved in, got it and now it's one of the best things they've ever done," said Paul Smith's College student Dominique Melagrano as she sat at a desk Tuesday in the Saranac Lake Free Library. "I'd definitely be open to it."
Jankowska said she considers hard-copy books to be like an art form, but she also has bought e-books from Amazon.com, "because it's so easy. You just click, and you have it."
Apart from the question of preference, there are other, meatier issues surrounding the growth of e-books and their impact on local libraries.
"The worst thing about it, although I love them and use them because they're so convenient, is the loss of social interaction," Jankowska said. "If you live in a very small community, the church, library and post office are the only places where people interact with each other. If you just stay home and download, that's kind of a little sad."
Jankowska also said she fears a growing "digital divide" among library patrons as more libraries shift to e-books.
"People who don't have the gizmos or a way to read those books are going to be left behind," she said.
Britell used that same phrase, digital divide, in describing the gap between libraries in cities and rural areas. He said people he has talked to downstate are astounded at how low library budgets are in the North Country.
"The amount of money being spent on libraries is so small up here compared to the rest of the state, and this e-book problem is really going to surface that," Britell said. "Right now, some systems have e-books; some don't. Our system can't afford it."
It's not just public libraries that are trying to stay ahead of the curve. School and college libraries are also exploring how to offer e-books. Hammond said North Country Community College and Paul Smith's College are developing e-book catalogs for their students.
Saranac Lake High School Librarian Seth Putnam said he's in the "frontier stages" of trying to incorporate e-books into his curriculum.
"Right now we're experimenting with a Kindle, a Nook and a Sony product," he said. "We're just kind of doing that in-house, to get a handle on what would be the best way to move forward."
Putnam said he thinks it is important to consider e-readers and e-books not only because people are interested in these new formats, but also because alternatives to books are necessary for some special education students.
Doing more with less
The growing demand for e-books comes at a time when many public libraries have expanded other services in response to community needs or requests. Most libraries now offer wireless Internet, public computer access, DVD rentals and even classes on skills ranging from writing a resume to how to use a computer.
Providing these kinds of services has brought more people into libraries, but it also costs more in tax money, Britell noted.
"Everybody says that more people are reading books, more books are being published, and more people are checking out books than ever, paper books," he said. "The problem is that while these demands are growing, many libraries have seen their funding cut. The libraries are extremely vulnerable.
"People that use libraries, librarians and trustees of libraries have to do a better job of explaining what we do to legislators. You can't blame a legislator for defunding a library when they don't even know what the library does, and that's our fault."
Hammond said this isn't the first time public libraries have had to evolve to incorporate a new form of technology. It wasn't that long ago that there was a lot of discussion about whether or not libraries should have videocassettes, he said.
But this isn't just the addition of a new technology to a library's offerings. This is a wholesale change in format to what has been the mainstay of libraries for generations. Could e-books supplant paper books entirely, turning libraries into mere electronic outposts for digital media?
Most of the librarians and library advocates interviewed for this story said no. Jankowska said she believes reference books will likely go completely digital, but she doesn't think hard-copy fiction or children's books will ever disappear from the shelves.
"I don't think there will be a fundamental change," added Glass. "We'll just continue to serve everybody and adapt to meet their needs."