The electronic book, or e-book, is coming to the Flagler County Public Library, starting Oct. 1. Or rather, it’s coming to your Kindle, your Nook, your iPad, your computer or whatever other electronic platform you prefer, by way of the library.
It is the latest major shift in the nature and purpose of public libraries as they continue to adapt to media that diminish the need for shelf space while warding off the effects of diminishing demand for more traditional materials–and diminishing visits by patrons: There’s been a decline of 12 percent in circulated materials through the library in the last two years, and a decline of 26 percent in the number of people visiting the library. On the other hand, the library saw a 14 percent increase in demand for informational databases accessed through the library’s web site.
The Library Board of Trustees had opposed the move to e-books, considering it an unwise use of taxpayer dollars. It costs the library about $28 per electronic title, almost twice what it’s been paying for hard covers. But Volusia and St. Johns’ library systems have e-books, and even offer them—for an annual membership fee—to Flagler County residents, who’ve been taking up the offer while urging their local library to do likewise. Flagler Library Director Holly Albanese has been busy fielding phone calls and emails from patrons wondering when their library would provide the service.
The board of trustees discovered that resistance is futile. That resistance may have accelerated the decline in patrons’ usage of the library.
So by fall you’ll be able to borrow books, audio books and even videos, in electronic format, for one or two weeks at a time (the term hasn’t been worked out yet). You’ll be able to carry those titles wherever you go. And when the borrowing term is over, the titles will simply disappear from your device: no hassles back to the library to return books, no late fees, no wandering around the house looking for misplaced titles. But some standard library strictures will remain: if, for example, the library buys one e-book version of, say, the latest Stephen King title, that title can only be lent to one patron, even electronically (though patrons will be able to borrow several electronic titles at the same time, depending on availability. Currently, patrons may borrow up to 20 physical items at a time. The allowance for electronic items is not likely to be that high.)
The library will be buying titles through Overdrive, a leading provider of digital materials that also markets through Amazon, and doing so through a consortium of libraries in northern Florida, Albanese said, to leverage the library’s purchasing power: being part of that consortium means being able to buy more books at lesser cost.
E-books, Albanese said, “probably will take over maybe one third of the circulation” of overall materials. Looking at other libraries trends and budgets, the director said, “there’s going to be a shift eventually, and we will purchase more in e-books than print.”
For now, however, two major publishers—Random House and Penguin—are refusing to be part of the e-book trend. They have e-books, but they’re not allowing libraries to lend them. That keeps numerous best-sellers out of libraries’ electronic circulations. These include, for example, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and two other Larsson titles currently among the top 15 best-selling electronic titles, and Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great. (Knopf Doubleday, which has several titles on the bestseller list, is a Random House imprint.) Albanese said negotiations are continuing between the American Library Association and the publishing houses to bring down the walls.
The physical needs of the library won’t be gone any time soon, however, Albanese said. “I always said that the library is going to change but the library systems, we’ve changed over the course of many thousands of years and we’ve always adapted to the needs of the public. I don’t see print going away for probably another 50 years.”
So there’s even talk of expanding the library by a third, to 9,000 square feet, because as its trustees see it, the main branch at Belle Terre and Palm Coast Parkway will be it for the next 10 years. Palm Coast will likely expand in the area of Town Center, but the trustees don’t see the need for a branch there for another decade. “The expansion of an already cramped facility is worthy of consideration,” the trustees’ annual report states. The library is budgeting architectural design plans for 2012, particularly for better meeting space.
The library is becoming more of a cultural center. “We have the art, we have the programs, so we are going to be for information, we’re also an e-government site,” Albanese said, citing the shift in federal and state governments’ own accessibility: as those government agencies shutter more doors to local offices, such as Social Security or unemployment offices, public libraries are taking up the slack through their internet connections. And in some cases, making money at it: the Flagler public library’s passport service generates fees exceeding the $40,000-a-year mark. By year’s end, that service will have generated over $200,000 for the library.
And then there’s the coffee shop: the library decided to open one on site, though the plan ran into some obstacles when the two merchants responding to the library’s request for proposal did not work out. Plans are still on to open the café this year. “We’re kind of back to square one so we’re going to meet and discuss what our options are,” Albanese said.
The Flagler County Commission was to hear an annual report on the library’s operations at the commission’s meeting this evening.
Crime, real or perceived, has been an issue at the library. The library grounds were becoming “a place where drugs sometimes changed hands and where graffiti and vandalism occurred,” the library report states. “In fact, the gazebo out back was destroyed by vandalism.” Albanese secured a grant that paid for a security camera system, which she could monitor from her office, and she launched the Library Crime Watch program in October, using volunteers. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office also stepped up its patrols. “Problems have declined dramatically and it did not cost the taxpayer anything,” the report states. The library also installed a new theft-detection system.
As always, the Friends of the Library have been doing a big share of the work “through generous financial support, numerous programs for patrons of all ages, popular book sales and capital improvements,” the report states. “The activities and programs sponsored by the Friends are covered prominently by our local media, thus communicating to residents the significant offerings of our library. The Friends just reported to the Trustees that for the ten year period, 2001 through 2010, more than $629,000 was contributed to the library. The library volunteers (many of whom are Friends) worked 16,441 hours, thus saving the County more than $300,000 in personnel expenses in the past year.”