THERE’S NOTHING like curling up with a good book after a long day — except, perhaps, sitting down with an iPad or a Kindle. Electronic book readership has surged, and public libraries are struggling to catch up. Libraries must find a balance between building digital collections and keeping valuable print resources on the shelf.
As demand for e-books soars, libraries are expanding their digital footprints. Spending on e-books nationwide has expanded from 1.7 percent of public library budgets in 2010 to 7.6 percent last year, while money devoted to print collections has decreased. A recent Post article detailed a nearly 1-million-book drop in D.C. public libraries’ print holdings since 2009, which now hover around 1.5 million print volumes, and a 300,000-volume decline in Fairfax County’s now 2.2 million print resources. Library systems throughout the country are making similar changes.
Print still matters, and many libraries are experiencing as much demand as ever for old-fashioned offerings. Millennials say they read books on paper more often than they do onscreen, according to a Pew Research Center study. As long as the reading public stays interested in print, libraries should not abandon it. At the same time, e-books are popular: Electronic waiting lists were hundreds of people long when e-books first arrived on the public library scene, though librarians say demand has leveled off somewhat since then.
The good news is that finding a middle ground seems possible — when libraries have the money. Much has been made of the seemingly precipitous decline in D.C. libraries’ print holdings. But in reality, total circulation in D.C. public libraries has increased steadily since 2009, rising from about 2.3 million items per year then to 3.9 million in fiscal 2014. Fewer than 300,000 of the 2014 count came from e-books. In Fairfax, library officials seem more concerned about their shrinking collection, but not because they think buying in print and buying electronically are mutually exclusive. Instead, Fairfax libraries simply lack the funds to maintain robust collections.
The difference between the District and Fairfax is simple. D.C. libraries have enjoyed generous government support over the past decade, Fairfax’s less so. And libraries everywhere face similar pressures. With enough money, they can build new infrastructure for new times, boosting e-book collections without cutting print sources people still need. When budgets are tight, however, any e-book comes at the cost of a printed volume.
Libraries are changing, and quickly. They walk a tightrope between keeping up with the times and moving too fast, not just with their collections but also when it comes to creating spaces that serve modern needs: More people come into libraries to meet, work and study today than just to borrow. With the necessary resources, libraries can take the right steps forward into the digital age without jettisoning too much of the printed past.
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