Emphasis on Ebooks Stirs Community Outcry in Illinois

Posted Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 10:46

Area residents served by the Rockford (Ill.) Public Library are questioning a decision by the board of trustees to allocate 25.5% toward the purchase of ebooks for the year. That amount would equal $303,332 of the library’s $1.19 million total collection budget for FY2012.

Protesters, who included the local chapter of the NAACP, held a news conference at the main library on January 13 to voice their opposition, stating that the increasing shift toward digital media will leave behind traditional users and those without money or access to new technology.

Members of the community-based initiative Save Our Library (SOL) noted that a proposal in RPL’s draft August 2011 “Facilities and Digital Library Plan” recommended that the library strive for a 95/5 ratio of digital-to-print. “The library would only purchase print in the event that no digital version is available for a needed item,” the proposal states. Frank Novak, executive director of the library, said in the January 14 Rockford Register Star that the relevant memos and reports from him to trustees were never voted on and had not been made public until the January 13 news conference. “Those are things that I’ve looked at for the long term,” he told the Star, “what could happen in the long run.”

“There’s always an emotional response to library changes,” Community Relations Officer Emily Hartzog told AL. “It’s kind of a compliment, because it shows that the community is passionate about the library and values it.” She went on to say that the library does not intend to abandon print books but rather to add more DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, and downloadable material. “It’s not a loss; it’s an addition to,” said Hartzog.

SOL member Rachel Leon told AL that the speed with which the library board appears to be instituting these changes “doesn’t make sense for the socioeconomic realities of our community.” According to the 2010 Census, 22% of Rockford’s nearly 153,000 residents are in poverty. Of the 102 US libraries that serve similarly sized communities and that reported to the latest Public Library Data Service’s Statistical Report, average ebook expenditures were $7,413. The largest amount was $71,992, appropriated for High Point (N.C.) Public Library.

“Any more the library board does to make access to books either more complicated, more cumbersome, or costly does not seem like it would be a good fit,” another SOL member, Margie Veitch, told WTVO in Rockford January 12.

The minutes of an October 24, 2011, trustees meeting indicate that board President Paul Logli said the library is merely going where the public has already taken it, citing the growth of ebook checkouts. He added that while there may ultimately be fewer print materials available, it behooves the board to try to anticipate library users’ needs.

Hartzog explained to AL that the RPL board used several factors to determine the budget, including figures that show ebook circulation shot up 52% between 2009 and 2010. From 2010 to 2011, the increase skyrocketed 92%. By comparison, print circulation peaked at 2009 and has dropped 25% since then, she said.

But Leon told AL that the circulation numbers are skewed because, since 2009, the board has been cutting library hours and has tried to close two of its six locations. “They’ve been looking for a way to justify more cuts to hours and closing libraries,” she asserted.

RPL’s overall FY2012 budget for electronic resources constitutes 35% of the acquisitions budget. Explaining that figures were not broken out for ebook spending in previous fiscal years, Hartzog added that it was impossible to compare the library’s FY2012 budget for ebooks and previous years’ ebook spending for Rockford Public Library.

RPL hopes to make 50 Kindle e-readers available for checkout by spring, and Hartzog said the plan to circulate e-readers was always part of the discussion when the board was determining how to allocate the collection budget.

Jane Pearlmutter, associate director emerita at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who teaches in the area of collection management and electronic resources, told AL that unless a library pays for many simultaneous users, it’s possible that a patron could reach the top of the hold list for an e-reader while still waiting for the desired ebook, or vice versa.

Pearlmutter also noted that libraries that move to a primarily ebook collection may find that they pay over and over for access to the same titles: “RPL seems like a passenger who knows it is time to go somewhere but is standing on the wrong platform, waiting for the wrong train.”

The next meeting of the Rockford library trustees is scheduled for January 23.