Books / Education / Local / Virginia

Libraries evolving to meet readers’ changing habits

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — During a Technology Petting Zoo at Harrisonburg’s public library on Feb. 11, city resident Milla Sue Wisecarver, 62, learned how to check out books.

But she didn’t use a card and get a traditional book made of paper products. She used her iPad and downloaded an electronic file.

Susan Versen, the branch’s head reference librarian, walked Wisecarver and three other participants through the Massanutten Regional Library system’s electronic media databases, including OverDrive, Zinio, OneClickDigital and Freading.

Wisecarver said she wanted to learn how to check out electronic materials to enjoy during her retirement.

“I did it once when they first started offering (e-books in 2011),” she said. “When I worked 60-hour weeks I couldn’t really do it. Now that I’m retired, there’s a little more time for that.”

Libraries used to belong to stiff spines and card catalogs, but e-books and e-readers have changed not only the rules but also the technology of lending.

In addition to paper-based books and DVDs, the seven-branch MRL system offers e-books and e-magazines, downloadable audio books, research databases like Find It Virginia and community programs.

All seven branches provide 761 e-books through OverDrive, 56 e-magazine titles via Zinio and 567 downloadable audio books through OneClickDigital. Branches also provide the 21,000-title Freading collection, but can’t add or delete titles from the state-run program.

Versen said MRL patrons checked out 758 e-books, 289 e-magazines and 316 audio books from the system’s databases in January.

Rentals from home have neither turned people into hermits nor turned libraries into ghost towns, Versen said. Patrons still come in to ask questions about their devices, check out traditional books and participate in activities for children and adults, Versen said.

“I don’t know if it has decreased foot traffic as much as everyone feared it would,” she said. “The claim that libraries are dying was oversold. People still love physical books and movies and audio books.”

Far from dying, attendance records from last year show that MRL libraries are as popular as ever.

Harrisonburg residents and visitors used the city library more than 170,000 times from July 2014 to last June, according to records. Additionally, the Page Public Library in Luray logged more than 45,000 visits, and the Elkton Community Library saw more than 10,000 visits.

Although not the first e-readers, the Amazon Kindle, which debuted in 2007, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, which followed in 2009, created a demand for e-books and similar digital materials. Updated versions of each device that include Wi-Fi, touch screens and other features have been released periodically over the last decade.

The Kindle can store up to 3,500 books, while the latest version of the Nook, the GlowLight, can hold 2,000 titles.

Additionally, with the onset of smartphones and tablet computers, readers can access e-book databases through apps like Apple’s Ebook Reader and Android’s Aldiko.

MRL patrons can access library e-books via mrlib.org or the OverDrive, Zinio, Freading and OneClickDigital apps. A library card is required to sign up for an account with the four databases.

As with traditional books, e-books can be checked out for two weeks and renewed up to three times.

Unlike traditional materials, e-books return themselves on their due dates and, in the case of audio books, can be played aloud on a smartphone like a podcast.

As the first e-readers were being rolled out, an economic plunge crimped the MRL system’s budget, but not the number of branch visitors.

Lois Jones, the MRL system’s director, said the recession of 2007-09 caused a paradox for libraries across the United States in the form of more needs and fewer dollars to accomplish them.

“When the recession first hit, libraries generally became much more busy than they had been,” she said. “People were discontinuing their magazine subscriptions because they knew they were available at the library. They weren’t buying as many books.”

As library foot traffic increased, the MRL system saw its funding from the state slashed by $250,000 in 2009.

“We got to the point where we took our book mobile off the road,” Jones said.

With the economy recovering, the system regained its 2008 level of funding in fiscal 2016, with about $1.8 million from Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Page County and the state.

The Harrisonburg library hosts its Technology Petting Zoo in collaboration with James Madison University. Mark Lane, 36, who works at the university’s Carrier Library, said the function of libraries’ computer labs has changed over the last 15 years.

“When I was in college, we didn’t have all these downloadable things,” he said. “We had electronic journal articles and databases, but not like it is now. Now everyone has a laptop and personal device.”

In the new media age, Lane said, libraries can be sources of expertise with new technology similar to electronics stores like Best Buy, but without the pressure of trying to make a sale.

“Libraries can be seen as leaders and developers … where everybody can come and ask questions,” he said.

Some people spurn the move toward new media.

Tim Jost, 67, of Harrisonburg, a law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, said he prefers reading physical books and listening to audio books during road trips.

“It’s a lot easier to read paper and carry paper around with you,” Jost said. “I’m just not used to (e-books), I guess.”

The cost of buying e-books is another reason he sticks to more traditional media, he said.

“With Amazon … you can get almost any book for under $10,” he said.

Prices of e-readers can range from $80 for a first-generation Kindle to $350 for a Samsung Galaxy Nook. E-books can cost between 99 cents and $15, depending on the title.

However, Jost said, e-books make life easier for his wife, Ruth.

“My wife’s an amputee,” he said. “She’s really found them useful because she’s always found it difficult to hold a book open.”

Wisecarver, a Winchester native whose mother was a school librarian, said libraries have expanded their reach in the community since her childhood.

“When you were a kid, it was just books,” she said. “I’m not sure there were magazines, but there were children’s reading programs.”

Wisecarver said libraries’ embrace of new technology benefits patrons overall.

“It’s a good thing because they’re expanding what you can offer,” she said. “When there’s a snowstorm and the library’s closed, you can check out books. It just enhances readers’ experience because they have so many options.”

“We’re just so fortunate to have libraries,” she said. “It’s a huge gift.”

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