Chances are, when you see older folks walking a dog while wearing headphones, they’re not listening to Beyonce or Jay Z. They’re listening to a book or a magazine article, maybe a podcast that they borrowed from the local library. Many listeners don't even have to leave home to borrow the material—they download it from the Internet with their library cards. It's free. Well, paid-for already with tax money.
While the readership of traditional books has fallen off a little, readership of downloadable audio books and e-books is exploding. According to Lake County Library Director of Circulation Julie Bradford, patrons of Lake County downloaded almost 85,000 e-books and 27,000 recorded books last year. Every month more and more books are added to their downloadable selections.
The Porter County library may not have downloadable audio books yet—but they're doing a rip-roaring business in lending. Assistant Director Phyllis Nelson, told me “In 2013, the Porter County Library (this includes all five branches - Valparaiso, Portage, South Haven, Hebron, and Kouts) circulated about 1.6 million items. This includes every single thing that was checked out during the year—books, DVDs, books on CD, magazines, etc. etc. Of this number, 43,281 were books on CD that were checked out by patrons.”
Well, okay. 43,000 is a lot of books. And that's assuming one listener per checkout. Downloadable audio books don't exist in magical future time anymore. Nelson is hopeful that Porter County will be able to make downloadable books available soon. “Think about it,” she said. “Patrons can borrow books and not have to worry about returning them, damaging, or losing them.” Or even leaving home to get them.
Of course you always have to “Rob Peter a little bit to pay Paul.”
“We have a set budget,” said Nelson. “When we started offering e-books we had to move a little money from hard copies, a little money from other places.”
“Libraries have responded to people's needs and desires as far as information goes,” she said. “Most publishers don't even put books on tape anymore. We've moved from tapes to CDs—soon we'll be joining the digital age.”
Julie Bradford is delighted with local response to downloadable audio books and she had only great things to say about Overdrive, the Internet service which acquires books for Lake County. “We're not the first ones to jump on the latest tech band wagon,” she said. “We watched to see what other libraries where doing for a few years. Overdrive was clearly the leader in the market and they've been really helpful to us setting up the service.”
“Actually, Overdrive was a little clunky when it first started out,” she said. “But they have gotten better and better and easier for both patrons and librarians to use.”
I know that's true. When I first switched from a PC computer to a Mac, I had trouble downloading from the Chicago Public Library—whose Overdrive system was mainly set up for PC users. But over the years, they have ironed out the system and my friends say it's as easy to download on an Apple device as a PC.
Along the way I discovered Audible.com (which was acquired by Amazon a while ago) and realized I could subscribe to 24 books a year for a ‘more reasonable’ price than buying them separately. I think that’s too much money.
But our local libraries are coming to the rescue. More than 15,000 libraries around the world offer almost two million downloadable titles, accessed on the Internet by nearly a billion people with a library card. Digital downloads are starting to rival hard-copy check-outs as more people, even retired people, don't have enough time to sit down and read.
“Some library branches offer ‘how to’ workshops to help patrons become more familiar with their e-readers or tablets,” said Nelson. “The best way to find out when programs are offered at the branches is to check the library's website - www.pcpls.org."
Meanwhile, every Monday between 2 and 4 pm the Lake County, Merrillville Library hosts an “Ask Me, I Work Here” program for people with new electronic devices like tablets and phones. “People bring in their little machines and we have two librarians dedicated to helping them learn how to use them,” said Bradfrod. “After the holidays we had a lot of folks—they received presents they didn't know how to work. One lady just brought in a box and said, ‘I don't know what it is, what it's for, or how to use it.’ We got her going.”