And more and more it’s on e-books. Now, libraries have been struggling with years of national, state, and local budget cuts. Galante says the new medium could bring some relief, because it eliminates the cost of labeling, shelving, and tracking.
Galante: In Queens we have over 70,000 books a day that we check back in and 70,000 going out. So in a digital world, there’s considerable savings for libraries.
For customers, the lure is simpler. Downloading an e-book is just convenient.
Gussie Young: I can do it right from my house. I can do it from my computer, if I wish.
Gussie Young has been visiting the Queens Library since moving to New York in 1963.
Young: You just hit the button and it comes to your computer. It’s a wonderful thing, if you can find a book you want.
But finding a book can be tough. Wait lists for popular titles can literally extend for years. On last glance, 46 people were waiting for two copies of the first Harry Potter, published in 1998. That’s better than many bestsellers, like the Hunger Games series. Publisher Scholastic is one of four—out of the six biggest publishers—that doesn’t allow libraries to purchase its e-books.
But down the road, there’s another problem. Almost all U.S. libraries that offer e-books do so through an outside company called Overdrive—although competitors are cropping up. Galante says when libraries buy an e-book from Overdrive, they don’t actually buy it.
Galante: When you license content through them, you really aren’t owning the content. Every year you have to pay them to continue to use that subscription service or you lose the content you’ve already paid for.
If a library stops using Overdrive, they lose all the books they’ve licensed. For the first time, libraries are renters, not owners, of their content. And, the more e-books they purchase, the larger the problem becomes. So, libraries are looking for other solutions. Robert Wolven heads an American Library Association group that’s tasked with addressing the problem. He says libraries need to develop a new model for e-books, but they don’t know what that is yet.
Robert Wolven: These are questions that go beyond what we’re doing now and what we’re doing next year. We’ve talked about how we want to avoid developing the model for next year that’s going to be obsolete by the time anyone puts it in place, and that’s a real challenge.
Wolven says e-books could change the entire way books are sold. He theorizes that publishers could sell subscriptions to their books—like a Netflix for paperbacks. Maybe libraries will pay a fee for books based on how popular they are. Or, maybe they won’t actually own their books at all anymore.
Ben Bradford, Columbia Radio News.