Spreading the word

in the stacks: While it still has plenty of old-fashioned books on hand, the local library system is seeing an increasing demand for its digital archives, too. Photo courtesy of Pack Memorial Library

Books aren't dead, according to Buncombe County Public Library Director Ed Sheary, but he admits that libraries cannot ignore the growing popularity of downloadable materials like e-books and digital audiobooks.

“The circulation of e-books now exceeds our smallest branch [Swannanoa] by a comfortable margin and is gaining on the next one,” Sheary says. “We can't be absolutely tied to one format and, for the most part, 90 percent of our energy has gone into print books. I see that percentage declining as time goes on, but I'm not sure how precipitous the decline is going to be.”

Sheary estimates that the 12-library system began circulating e-books and other downloadable materials about six or seven years ago, saying they “got in early” on the digital trend. In 2010, the public library circulated 15,523 digital books through the North Carolina Digital Library (NCDL). The following year, that number nearly doubled to a circulation of 29,559 digital books.

He also points to the most recent fiscal year as further evidence of the trend toward the digital: Of the nearly $500,000 designated for buying books in fiscal year 2011-12 budget, about $75,000 was used to purchase e-books and other downloadable materials. Compare that to fiscal year 2010-11, when the library system spent $25,000 on digital content.

Last year, the local library system received a $20,000 library services and technology grant. The federal grant money will be used to expand the system's current offerings of both e-books and audiobooks for adults, young adults and children, Sheary explains. The reasoning is that an expanded digital collection will offer borrowers more choices for research and reading pleasure, and it will make the library an appealing option for digital book users in Buncombe County. And, as Sheary points out, e-books can also be a smart use of dollars.

“As far as the maintenance of them [e-books], once you have it, it's free. You don't have to keep the lights on in the building and all of that,” he says. “You're downloading a file and the file, in effect, has an expiration date. So there's really nothing. It's not like you're going to drop the thing in the bathtub, but if you do that with your e-reader, it's your problem, not my problem.”

However, as part of the grant's parameters, the local library must reach out to members of its community and ask them to complete an online survey about the NCDL, the place where patrons can check out downloadable materials. The 11-question online survey asks people things like, “How often do you visit the North Carolina Digital Library?” and, “If you don't use the NCDL, why not?”

The survey, explains Library Associate Tammy Silver, was created to show usage patterns and what people want to see on the digital shelves.

“It's pretty self-explanatory,” Silver says of the survey. “We wanted to keep it short, rather than having it going on to a third page.”

The online survey will close Sunday, July 7. According to Silver, who checked the numbers on the survey a few weeks ago, about 100 people had cast their votes.

Though the library has conducted paper surveys in the past on other topics related to the Buncombe County Public Library, Sheary says it was intentional that this survey be made available online.

“Your best methodology is trying to listen to what people are telling you. So when they ask for [a service] pretty seriously, you've got think pretty seriously about providing it. The downside to that is you've got about a third of the population that are fairly regular library users, which is an impressive number, but that means two-thirds are not; and that's the group we don't really know what they're thinking,” Sheary states. “You need to hear from everybody.”

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cbyrd@mountainx.com.


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