Libraries offering e-readers, e-books

Skyy Beverly, 9, and her sister, Tru, 3, of Hampden, use a computer at the Hampden Library on July 24. Baltimore City's Enoch Pratt Free Library system offers more online services, including e-readers and e-books. (Staff photo by Monica Herndon / July 24, 2013)

Taking a class on how to download and upload e-books opened up a new world for senior citizen Betsy Cunningham.

Cunningham plans to take her laptop computer with her on vacation and to upcoming conferences in South America. But she was frustrated after failed attempts to upload e-books onto her laptop in preparation for her travels.

"I just couldn't figure it out," she said.

On July 17, the Roland Park resident took a class called "E-books 101" at the Enoch Pratt Central Library in downtown Baltimore, where a handful of participants learned to download e-books onto e-readers, tablets and smartphones and to upload e-books from the Internet onto their home computers.

"I really have no interest in checking out an e-reader," said Cunningham, a frequent library patron. "But that's because I learned I can check e-books out online and read them on my computer. Isn't that wonderful?"

Convenience is driving the growing collection of electronic e-books and e-readers in Baltimore City's Enoch Pratt Free Library system, officials say.

But the costs to the library system of buying and repurchasing limited-use e-books from publishers, as well as a learning curve for library patrons with basic computer skills — many of them seniors like Cunningham — are holding back the tide of the new technology in local branches, officials add.

The collection has swelled to 30,000 titles citywide, one of the bigger e-book collections in the country, thanks to a two-year, $350,000 grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation grant last year, officials say.

With more e-book titles available, library users are more frequently reading books online and on electronic platforms such as personal and library-issued Sony e-readers, Kindles and Nooks, which are easier to carry than books, said library system CEO Carla Hayden.

"You can take your device to the beach, take it with you on a plane or a train. Even five paperbacks are still bulky," Hayden said.

Also, fonts can be enlarged on e-readers and computers, an added incentive for those with poor eyesight, who often request books with large print, Hayden noted.

A trend in Hampden

At the Hampden Library, where e-books and e-readers are being promoted through fliers and word of mouth, branch manager Devin Ellis said she is seeing at least a small trend toward people using the technology.

"They seem interested," Ellis said. "We are checking out more e-readers."

Since many library users, especially older patrons, are unfamiliar with the technology, the library system is trying to bridge the gap by launching a traveling "e-books 101" tutorial class, as well as one-on-one instructional opportunities, at all branches.

Ellis last month called a member of the library system's instructional team to see about scheduling a class at her branch, especially for the elderly.

"I know we have a demographic in Hampden for it," she said.

The Hampden branch is one of several that plan to host e-books 101 classes in the near future, library system officials say. No dates have been scheduled yet, but users can call their local branch to set up individual appointments to learn and troubleshoot usage problems.

"Some people are not aware, so we've taken it on as our responsibility to introduce this new opportunity to them," Ellis said.

The library system will apply for additional funding as the grant concludes in 2014. There is no other funding for e-readers or e-books at this time, said Roswell Encina, library spokesman.