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Library adoption of ebooks and digital resources soars: study

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Survey finds over the past year, libraries' attention has shifted from surviving the economic storm to delivering richer and more targeted resources -- especially in the digital realm -- to constituents.

Today's library is no longer just a big box of books that sits in a city or on a campus. It is fast evolving into a digital resource center, largely virtualized, but still providing space and resources to promote economic and personal development.

At last week's Computers in Library conference in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to participate in a scintillating panel discussion in which we discussed this shift among libraries, now well underway, from physical book repositories to digital service centers.

The theme of the panel focused on the results of a new series of surveys I just authored, The Digital Squeeze: Libraries at the Crossroads, which is based on the input of 730 library managers from across North America. I was joined by Dr. Frank Cervone, head of information services at Purdue University Calumet; David Lee King, digital branch manager for the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library system; Mike Diaz, executive director of marketing for ProQuest; and Dick Kaser, VP at Information Today, Inc. The panel was moderated by Tom WIlson, president of Unisphere Research, a division of ITI.

The economy may be healing, and more funds are flowing to North America’s public, academic and special libraries. However, libraries continue to feel the sting of cutbacks and budget shortfalls. In addition, the historic shift to digital libraries is accelerating, both as a response to tight budgets, as well as libraries establishing a new mission and purpose in a world now awash in online resources.

The good news is that library budgets appear to have made it through the recent recession. Overall, participating libraries in the survey have seen gains in their total budgets. But this is not helping them keep up with the costs of staffing, operations, and equipment. As was the case last year, most libraries continue to be forced to cut expenses, including staff training, hours, and print subscriptions.

At the panel discussion, Cervone pointed out that his department's budget had been shrinking in recent years, and they are constantly being tasked with doing more with less. Indeed, academic libraries in the survey showed little budget growth from year to year, while public libraries generally reported greater financial support.

In an era when local and state budgets are deep in the red, it may seem surprising to hear that public librarians are relatively upbeat about their prospects. But observations by Topeka-Shawnee's King point to a new role that these libraries have assumed -- as community centers offering Web access, as well as  technical and career development information.  King even reports that funding has improved for his library system.

Other data from the survey bears out this new mission: Seventy percent of public libraries indicate that they serve as technical and career information hubs for their communities. Unemployment is still running high, close to 9%, with an even larger percentage not being officially counted. These numbers are way higher in distressed communities. Yet, at the same time, paradoxically, companies are unable to find the talent needed for technical tasks, and many job openings are going unfilled. Still, companies are not offering enough training. Cash-strapped governments are not offering training. The costs of higher education are going through the roof. Public libraries are often the only resource available to help citizens achieve some level of digital literacy to compete in today's economy. On some level, politicians and policymakers understand this.

Few academic libraries saw themselves in this role of Web access and career development, however -- these needs are seen as fulfilled by other parts of universities and colleges.

The accelerating shift to digital is another trend emerging from the data. There has been a notable -- and huge -- surge in the past year in adoption and offering of ebooks and other digital materials, while scaling back on print. Overall, 54% of libraries report increased demand from patrons for ebooks, and libraries providing such access jumped from 19% to 36% over the past year. The trends was even more pronounced among public libraries, with 52% now offering ebooks -- three times the number from just a year ago.

Publishers, who are struggling with the challenging new business model ebooks present. As a result, there is a major tug of war occurring between libraries and publishers, as recently well documented by SmartPlanet colleague Hannah Waters. With the relentless rise of ebook readers and tablet computers across the globe, demand for such capabilities will only grow more acute.

Patron demand is growing for other types of content in electronic formats, including internet, media streaming, and audio downloads. More libraries are turning to the cloud to support operations or provide content and back-end support as well -- from 20% using or planning to use cloud a year ago to 34% today. Typical functions being outsourced to the cloud include email, online catalogs and discovery service (internal search).

The recent economic downturn may be a temporary malady, but libraries recognize the shift to digital resources as a long-term trend that is changing the nature of their mission and services. Over the past year, attention has shifted from surviving the economic storm to delivering richer and more targeted resources -- especially in the digital realm -- to constituencies.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure