By Medicine Hat News on March 31, 2017.
When Saskatchewan Education Minister Don Morgan defended deep cuts to library budgets, it’s reported he said, “With the internet, people are using E-readers — they’re not going to the library to buy a book; they’re getting it online. A lot of libraries that they belong to give them some free e-books as well, so I think that is the future of libraries across North America.”
He’s right that people don’t go to libraries to buy books, they’re free to borrow, which is very important for readers who would have to spend thousands of dollars a year if they had to buy all their books, and perhaps make decisions about whether to buy books for their children or pay utilities.
And while there are some classics and self-published works that are legally free online, the rest cost money, promote a specific cause, or are pirated. A person in government should care that libraries defend copyright law and provide a mechanism to support the legal sharing of quality materials.
In 2016 Medicine Hat Public Library spent about as much per title for e-books (average fiction cost $25) as we did for print ($23). This yields a cost per use averaging $0.84 cents for e-books and $0.56 for print fiction. Although public libraries pay more for e-book licenses than individuals do, so that we can legally share them among our many patrons, the cost per use is very low.
In 2016, just looking at the fiction collections, there were 50,314 checkouts of e-books, and 87,288 checkouts of print, so a fair number of readers using e-books. Children, on the other hand, use print very heavily, borrowing 141,860 fiction books but only 2,755 fiction e-books. What government would want to take books out of children’s hands?
Lots of people prefer paper books, either all the time or for some kinds of texts. Others prefer paper but use e-books when they are travelling; for example I often see an uptick in downloads to snowbirds in Arizona or Mexico. Some titles are only available in one format or the other, not both.
Some patrons don’t read library books but use computers to access the licensed resource PressDisplay to read newspapers from around the word, or Zinio for popular magazines, or Hoopla to watch television shows or movies and listen to music. The library handles all the legalities, patrons just keep their library card up to date and download what they want to read, listen to, or watch.
Moreover, books of all kinds are central to our operation but surrounding our stacks and mingling with readers are the many people who use their library to access the internet, who we teach to use computers, who get help with their electronic devices, who receive literacy tutoring in the library or who come to the library for entertainment, companionship and community enriching activities.
Historically governments funded libraries to level the playing field so that poor people could be made individually responsible for improving their own lives; learning new skills or learning vocabulary and grammar and life lessons through fiction. Libraries still level the playing field and, as importantly, bring all social classes and ages together to reduce social friction. If you’re chatting with a politician of any stripe, make sure they know how much you appreciate the value that libraries generate from your tax dollars.
Shelley Ross is chief librarian at the Medicine Hat Public Library.
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