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Baltimore libraries are now as close as your e-reader

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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.

Before getting the Weinberg Foundation grant, the Pratt system had already purchased 60 e-readers that remain in its collection today, said Sarah Kuperman of the Collection Management Department.

Publishers restrict usage

While the use of e-books has steadily increased, titles are expensive for the library system to purchase because publishers like HarperCollins, fearful of piracy, limit the number of checkouts libraries can allow per e-book, after which the libraries must repurchase them, Kuperman said.

Erin Crum, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins Publishing LLC, said in a written statement that the publishing house in 2011 set a maximum usage limit of 26 checkouts for most e-books, because, "we had concerns that selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book (sales) channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties to ensure that all of our sales channels, in both print and digital formats, remain viable in the future.

"We still consider this a work in progress but, given our concerns, we have yet to see a model that works better," the statement continues. "In practice, relatively few titles have reached the 26 circulation limit and we are getting positive feedback from libraries on the cost of circulation of our e-books."

A 2011 HarperCollins press release stated that e-book repurchases would be discounted to a paperback price point.

Such requirements drive up the cost of e-book collections across the country, Kuperman said. Publishers place no such restrictions on books and other printed materials, she said.

"Readers want to access the books they want to read," Kuperman said. "But they can't do that if the e-book collection does not contain enough copies of popular titles."

However, the library system, too, is cautious about guarding its new technology against theft. New patrons must have a library account open for 30 days before they are allowed to check out an e-reader.

Regardless of its investment in new electronic platforms, the Pratt library system will continue to collect printed books, and some publishings more commonly used for research purposes might never be purchased by the library for its electronic collection, officials say.

"Pratt is not saying (it) will be an electronic haven," Kuperman said. But she added, "The community is showing us that this is a format they are interested in."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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