By Michelle Lee
As libraries expand their digital collections, the issue of how much money should be spent requires a delicate balance. In Illinois, some residents have questioned the Rockford Public Library’s decision to use $303,332, or 25.5 percent of its $1.19 million budget, for ebooks.
Members of Save Our Library, a community initiative, and the Rockford NAACP held a press conference earlier this month to protest the decision.
Rachel Leon, a library patron, writer, and SOL member, said she likes ebooks but her main concern was that the high focus on digital materials “does not make sense” for the community’s economic situation because it could leave behind those who are low-income and might not be able to afford the technology needed to use it. About 22.7 percent of Rockford’s 152,871 residents live in poverty, according to the 2010 Census.
Leon also said she was upset at the lack of public input on the issue. ”(The library) moved 25 percent allocation without polling the public at all,” she said. “The library has been asking ‘do we want a coffee shop or weekend hours?’ They never asked if people own ereaders and how much they want.”
Jacob Vrolyk, a 12-year-old home-schooled student, created an online petition and he collected a total of 325 signatures, both electronic and on paper. He presented copies to the Rockford Library Board on January 23.
Jacob, who uses the library every week, said he enjoys reading ebooks, but he started the petition because he thinks the money could be better spent on actual books and other important materials for local branches. “I’m not opposed to digital offerings,” Jacob said. “I feel we should spend a lot more on the things libraries spend on.”
Marjorie Veitch, another SOL member and library patron, said the amount was a “huge allocation for little input.” “Did we do our homework?” she said. “Is this really the best use of taxpayer dollars?
“We understand the need to embrace electronics. But have these thing really been thought about?” Veitch said. “Is this the best way to provide people with access to materials?”
More than 100 people showed up for the latest library board meeting on January 23 and the Rockford Public Library Board President Paul Logli assured the public that the library will continue to provide its regular services and he encouraged residents to attend more meetings and offer more feedback to the library board.
“We have every intention and desire to maintain current traditional services downtown and in our branches,” Logli said, according to the Rockford Register Star. “We also acknowledge that a circulation trend shows that more ebooks are circulated and at the same time less printed books are circulated.”
“There will always be a place in our community for the traditional library. We are still increasing and updating our print titles while also increasing our etitles. Our current patrons have already indicated their desire for both in their changing circulation patterns,” he said.
The library had increased its digital materials spending from 6.6 percent of the total budget in 2011 to 34 percent in 2012, or about $400,000, according to the newspaper (digital collection is not only limited to ebooks).
The Rockford Public Library is “very fortunate to have people who are library advocates in the community,” said Emily Hartzog, the community relations officer, and the library officials feel an “open dialogue is the best way to address their concerns.”
Hartzog said the library board and administration have been working to bridge the “digital divide” for patrons, and they are building up their digital collection to help meet the existing and future demand for ebooks.
Hartzog noted the circulation numbers for print materials peaked in 2009 while the demand for ebooks has gone up. The library also responds to public requests for ebooks.
The library circulated 844,330 print items in 2009; 683,920 print items in 2010 and 545,933 print items in 2011. The total ebook circulation was 6,687 items in 2009; 10,145 items in 2010 and 19,501 items in 2011.
The Rockford Public Library also plans on purchasing 50 ereaders by this spring for circulation and hopes to have a total of 1,000 ereaders by the end of the year, if needed, Hartzog said. The funds for the ereaders would come from the technology line.
“The benefit is two-fold: by circulating the reader, we’re not only giving access tot he digital devices to everybody, we’re giving access to that technology to those who otherwise may not be able to access that technology,” Hartzog said.
The Rockford Public Library has 10,069 purchased etitles as of January 23 and access to 30,000 public domain titles, which is free to the library, according to Hartzog.
The library started developing its ebook collection in 2007.
At first, the library used to participate in a northern Illinois consortium run by Overdrive, Hartzog said, but Rockford library officials decided to move away from the consortium and expanding its own collection when many local patrons ended up in waiting behind other library patrons for titles.
“We would like all the money to invest in a digital collection for our customers,” she said.
Some Rockford residents still have concerns about how the ebooks would be implemented in the library system, and what a larger digital collection could hold for the print collection.
Jacob said he thinks it is a good idea for the library to provide electronic readers for circulation, but he wondered if there would be enough supply. “Are you going to give Kindles to a family of five so they can all read a book?” he said.
Leon and Veitch said they were also worried that the strong digital push could lead to a reduction of library staff and on-site materials in the future.
Hartzog said the library board has no interest in abandoning traditional library services and they have not had any discussions about laying off staff or closing locations. She added that all 2012 budget decisions and discussions were held in open meetings and the public is welcome to attend.