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GUEST COLUMN: Nation's public libraries have lost some of their vitality

By: Lamar Cole
January 26, 2014 Updated: January 26, 2014 at 8:55 am
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Across much of America today, particularly in its big cities, public libraries are losing vitality.

Libraries are often the first places to have their budgets cut and the last to have them restored. New York City and Washington, D.C., have each cut their funding by up to 40 percent in the past few years. And virtually no one notices. National media made big news out of a small reduction in Colorado Springs' streetlight budget, playing it up in both print and broadcast news, but ignores much larger cuts to libraries in their own cities.

Luckily, Colorado Springs has solid conservative funding solely dedicated to our libraries, out of the reach of grasping politicians.

Libraries also have less impact in the publishing world today compared to yesteryear. In 1989, for instance, libraries purchased over four percent of the publishing world's output. That figure's dropped - it's slightly over 1 percent today.

Libraries have struggled to keep pace with the electronic revolution in book publishing, as well. They were early and eager advocates of computerized technology, adopting it as soon as feasible, but they relied on "middleman" companies such as Overdrive to secure book rights and write the computer software. The software has not kept up - if one visits the Pikes Peak Library District's main website, for instance, you have to click through four more screens before you can even sign in to your own e-book account.

Consumers with e-readers find that electronic books are cheaper and more convenient to buy for themselves; yet, libraries have placed themselves in an upside-down trap: they often pay more in rights for electronic books than for hardcover books. Furthermore, when libraries change their e-book vendors, they often discover that they are not allowed to transfer the rights to their already-purchased copies to that new vendor.

Lower funding and higher costs are a sure way for public libraries to lose their vitality. To regain that lost vitality, they need to secure funding streams not subject to politicians' grand redistribution schemes, while simultaneously doing a better job in dealing with publishing's electronic revolution.


Vernon Lamar Cole is a retired systems analyst who now spends his time with his family and his books.

Sydne Dean's response:

E-materials are still a small percentage of a library's circulation (though increasing each year). Libraries and e-book publishers got off to a rocky start, but Penguin, Simon & Schuster and other large publishers are now at the table. We're on the same page.

Libraries work with small independent publishers providing access to even more authors. PPLD has e-books, e-audio, e-magazines, e-music and e-video. Four clicks to free resources isn't bad!

E-materials are not more expensive. They don't need to be processed, shelved, weeded. The library doesn't have to chase after lost, damaged or late materials. No fines. It's an exciting time for libraries!

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