Even as electronic books and other computerized innovations have become vital sources of information for everything from the most frivolous of Hollywood gossip to the most tedious of new theories in advanced physics, books in print remain vital sources of information.

Our public libraries have managed to strike a balance in this regard. The Harford County Public Library system has public computer terminals at branches throughout the county. The old card catalog system of keeping track of what's in stock has been in digital form for decades, plus it's possible to check on books available not only at local branches, but also at branches far afield.


The libraries also stock digital materials to include compact disk recordings of movies and music, and even have made some efforts to delve into the realm of electronic books.

The issue of electronic books is one that's particularly ticklish. Public libraries in the U.S. were devised to loan books to the public at large, arguably taking away a portion of the market for new books. When libraries start giving away electronic books that cost money to research, write, produce, market and distribute, the book-buying public becomes subject to a new kind of pressure.

This is one of many reasons books — the ink on paper kind — are apt to be around for a long time to come. That and the economic reality that digitizing all the books in print from modern times back to 1454-55 when the Gutenberg Bible became the first mass production printing release is virtually incalculable.

Books are here for the foreseeable future, and, as a practical matter, that means the Harford County Public Library will be ending up each year with more titles than they have shelf space for. Historically, such books have been sold off with the money raised — often with the help of Friends of the Library organizations — going back into the library system's collection budget. It's been a good system, with the general public having first crack at titles that may be of limited general appeal but that might be very interesting to the right buyer.

Lately, however, the Harford County library system has begun dealing with its extra books in a new way. The Abingdon and Bel Air branches are working with a Baltimore-based group called Baltimore Reads, an adult literacy charity organization, which pays the library system 20 percent of the resale value of the books it collects, and also boxes them up and carts them away. While 20 percent of resale value may not sound like much, the used book market is a rather fickle one, and, while the library system might on occasion get 100 percent of the value out of one title, there are plenty of other old books that go unsold at local book sales.

This doesn't mean there won't be used book sales at libraries that have traditionally had them. And it isn't the only operation of its kind in the county, as other library branches sell old books to other businesses and organizations, also with proceeds going toward the purchase of new books and other materials.

Maybe this new system being tried for the Abingdon and Bel Air branches will work and maybe it won't. That it's one of several things being tried and it is being billed as a pilot or experimental program is an indication the library system is operating in a progressive, yet cautious way. The bottom line for the library system is it needs to upgrade its collection regularly to keep up with the latest in an array of fields, and it needs to carefully sell those parts of the collection that are of limited value to the general public. The function of culling books generates money for buying new books is a good way to handle the task, whether it's through book sales on-site or the discounted selling of large quantities of lesser titles.