Guest Column: Staying relevant — why the library must change and embrace the digital revolution

By Frank Novak

I read Rachel Leon’s recent guest column (“Does our community reflect the need for 34 percent of our library’s budget to go to electronic resources?”) and wanted to address her concerns and provide some perspective about the library’s changing role in our community. First, let me say I think it’s wonderful Ms. Leon is such an advocate for library services, and we both agree the library provides value to its citizenry. However, her letter suggests the library cut its hours for the sake of purchasing electronic resources, which is not the case.

The library cut hours in 2009 as a result of a budget cut, which reduced the library’s overall budget. Within that overall budget, the library dedicates a minimum of 13 percent to its collection (on par with comparable other libraries in the state), which is divided among all formats including print, eBooks, online databases, etc. The library did not cut hours and then increase its electronic budget with the savings gained. What has increased is the ratio of electronic materials to printed books within the collection budget.

Why the increase? The world has changed. Print books are phasing out as the de facto standard for public libraries. Evidence everywhere is telling us that digital information is rapidly becoming the new normal. Sales of eBooks are growing dramatically. Amazon sells more eBooks than all of its print materials put together. Borders went out of business, and Barnes & Noble is shifting its focus to eBooks. Publishers are moving assets out of their print operations and into digital formats. Some authors are going direct to digital and aren’t even bothering with publishers at all.

The world of information has changed and will continue to do so. For the library to fulfill its mission and remain relevant, we need to stay aware of popular materials and format trends. The library has spent decades developing a print collection that offers breadth and depth, but relatively little time developing an eBook collection. Collections grow over time, but the explosion of the eReader market necessitates an immediate investment if the library hopes to reasonably meet the growing demand for digital content.

Developing an electronic materials collection makes sense for a modern public library, but we are mindful of the digital divide. To that end, the library is acquiring eReaders for library users to check out, facilitating access to the devices and the growing collection of eBooks for everyone. History shows that new electronic access devices quickly become cheap and readily available, which we are already seeing in the eReader and tablet market (more than 80 devices were introduced last year alone!). As eReaders become more affordable, RPL must prepare for the demand of materials people will want as a result.

Ms. Leon’s letter stated we need “more hours, services and programming” instead of electronic resources. eBooks aren’t part of an either/or scenario with hours and programming — it’s about creating the right product mix for today’s library users while making the necessary investments to remain relevant to tomorrow’s library users as well. While there is still demand for some print books, and some genres don’t lend themselves to the current eBook format, statistics tell us that our customers want electronic materials. Check out of print materials has declined overall from its peak in July of 2009 every month since January of 2010. The use of digital materials, however, has grown more than sevenfold since 2007, and it continues to rise.

There are many reasons we see such explosive growth in our eBook lending. Digital materials are accessible to customers 24/7 from their homes, cars, places of employment, or any place they have a mobile device. Digital books are fast, convenient and efficient. With eBooks, one doesn’t have to visit the library to use the service, making it incredibly useful to busy parents, seniors with mobility challenges, people with difficult work schedules, and many others. On the back end, there are no late fees, lost books, or return trips to the library.

Public libraries are invaluable assets to the communities they serve, and meeting the community’s current needs while planning for the future is a juggling act complicated by limited resources. Rockford Public Library is committed to maintaining that value and staying relevant by offering a mix of traditional library services and digital materials, digital literacy and programming. The library is about economies of scale, and we are dedicated to providing access to the materials, services and programs our customers want in a constantly-evolving electronic world.

Frank Novak is the executive director of Rockford Public Library.

From the Dec. 21-27, 2011, issue

One thought on “Guest Column: Staying relevant — why the library must change and embrace the digital revolution

  • Jan 4, 2012 at 11:23 am

    If only 15% of the population read digital books and the majority using the library couldn’t afford E-readers – why even consider going digital? Libraries are for the public access not just those that can afford digital!

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