Ebooks change future of Cortez Public Library

In my more than 40 years of working in libraries, I have seen many changes in how the work of librarians was done. Before computers, for each book we added to the library collection, we had to type anywhere from three to sometimes eight cards to go into the card catalog. Then we got to file those cards. Withdrawing a book from the collection required us to then retrieve those cards from the catalog. Every evening we hand-alphabetized cards that represented books checked out that day.

Computers changed all that and allowed us to absorb much more work into our days. In 1979, the first year I worked at the Cortez Public Library, we checked out 19,000 items. Last year we checked out over 150,000 items, an increase of 789 percent. Our staff, on the other hand, has merely doubled to the equivalent of eight full-time employees. It's the computers that allow us to absorb all the extra work.

Probably one of the biggest changes I'll be seeing in my career is the advent of ebooks. Ebooks are changing the nature of publishing like nothing else since the printing press. Publishers and librarians are in a kind of stalemate over ebooks. Publishers understandably want to maximize their profits, and librarians want to provide ebooks to patrons without exorbitant costs.

Libraries and ebook vendors are struggling to figure out a way to work together, or not! With print books, libraries in Colorado (we get a 45 percent discount) can generally purchase a best-seller for around $16 and then check it out as many times as it lasts. Some of our older books have been enjoyed hundreds of times. HarperCollins now sells an ebook copy at full price to libraries for 26 uses. After the 26th checkout, the library must purchase another copy. But the rest of the “big six” publishers — Hatchett, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon and Schuster — won't even sell ebooks to libraries at all, fearing it would hurt their sales.

Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas County Public Library District here in Colorado, has taken the bull by the horns. He has purchased a server and has begun to buy ebooks from willing independent publishers. He is contacting other publishers and is trying to come to agreements with them based on libraries' old print model — the library owns the copy of the ebook and the library checks it out to one person at a time.

With print books it was generally assumed that exposure to books from the library would increase sales of books. People certainly do read books from the library and then decide they must own them, so hopefully the big publishers will come around. We could end up living in a world where some books are only available for a price.

With ebooks, two revenue streams will dry up for libraries. There will be no fines as the books will simply disappear off of the patron's device. And as the number of print books decline, libraries' used book sales will dry up, although maybe we will be able to charge a lot more for the “real” books!

Presently, our library has included in its catalog the top 400 downloaded books from the Gutenberg Project. The Gutenberg Project has been digitizing books since before I learned about the Internet in 1992. These are all books on which the copyright has run out, so they were published before 1922. They are generally considered classics. This is a free service to our library and our community.

Recently, The Friends of the Cortez Public Library agreed to pay for a yearly subscription, at the cost of $3,000, for the library to offer a service called OverDrive. OverDrive will enable our patrons to have access to ebooks, audiobooks, music and video. Audiobooks and ebooks are available in virtually all subjects: best-selling fiction, business, children's, current events, technology, travel, foreign language study, self-improvement, professional development, young adult, mystery, romance, thrillers, classic literature, science fiction and much more. They also have a wide array of music and video titles.

The library will be joining a statewide consortium for this service which allows us a less expensive subscription price and more content. Libraries can join the consortium quarterly, and then it takes another quarter to get up and running. According to the OverDrive staff, the Cortez Public Library's new service should begin in early June.

Will ebooks replace print books eventually, or will the two technologies remain side by side for a time? It's fun to wonder!

Joanie Howland is director of the Cortez Public Library, 202 N. Park St. She can be reached at 565-8117.

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