Want to take out the new John Grisham? Get in line. As of Friday morning, 288 people were ahead of you in the Fairfax County Public Library system, waiting for one of 43 copies. You’d be the 268th person waiting for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” with 47 copies. And the Steve Jobs biography? Forget it. The publisher, Simon & Schuster, doesn’t make any of its digital titles available to libraries.
Frustration is building on all sides: among borrowers who can’t get what they want when they want it; among librarians trying to stock their virtual shelves and working with limited budgets and little cooperation from some publishers; and among publishers who are fearful of piracy and wading into a digital future that could further destabilize their industry. In many cases, the publishers are limiting the number of e-books made available to libraries.
Already, the exploding demand for e-books has changed how libraries operate. Traditionally, going to the library has been like going to Wal-Mart, said Paula Isett, outreach specialist with the Maryland Department of Education, who consults with the state’s libraries.
“Everything you need and want is there,” she said. “There are unlimited books, and if a library doesn’t have a book, they can get it. . . . Our e-book library is not like that. There is such demand, and we’re struggling to keep up with it.”
Now libraries are increasingly faced with a delicate balancing act: How much of their acquistion money should be spent on print books, and how much on digital content?
Even though Maryland’s entire library system more than doubled its inventory in the past couple of years, it has fewer than 10,000 copyrighted e-books available. Meanwhile, the number of e-book checkouts across the state almost quadrupled in that time, to 266,000 last year.
Librarians are seeing the growth accelerate. In September, Amazon announced that for the first time, its hugely popular Kindle devices would be able to download e-books from libraries. In the past few weeks, there has been a post-holiday surge as millions of people unwrapped iPads, Nook Colors, Kindle Fires and other e-readers.
In the District, where the library budget has been slashed so much in recent years that the system considered closing its main branch on Sundays, e-book checkouts grew 116 percent from 2010 to 2011. And there were more checkouts in the first quarter of this fiscal year than there were in all of the previous year, said Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian of the D.C. Public Library system.