Written by Jimmie Epling   

Print Vs. Digital Books -

Does It Matter to You? 

 By Jimmie Epling

First let me say it will be a long, long time before anyone will ever walk into a location of the Darlington County Library System and ask, “Where are the books?”  With all the changes going on at the Library and our website becoming a “digital branch,” you need not worry that one day you will enter one of our locations to find no books.  Now that said, there is a shift happening.  This has put some libraries under fire as they shift from print to digital books.

 A couple of weeks ago, State Librarian Leesa Benggio spoke to the Hartsville Kiwanis about the services offered by the State Library to public libraries throughout the state.  Afterward, a couple approached her to have her settle their ongoing discussion about print versus digital books.  He, a retired businessman, and she, a retired school librarian, had been debating whether libraries should encourage and promote the reading of print books over e-books.  When asked to weigh in, Ms. Benggio’s response was it doesn’t matter what we as librarians and individuals might like, our customers have already weighed in on that debate and decided.  They want both.   

 You hear reports from around the country that public libraries are slashing their print collections in favor of e-books.  Some have even prompted heated protests. 

 In New York City, protesters shouted: “Save the stacks! Save the stacks!” in response to a plan to do away with seven floors of book stacks to free up 10,000 square feet for writers, researchers, and job-seekers.  The $300 million renovation was cancelled, but officials maintained the project would have modernized the library and provided increased digital access to its resources.  Eliminating so much of the print collection was extreme. 

 The Fairfax County Library System in Northern Virginia has reduced its print collection by nearly 1 million books since 2009.  This sparked what the director there called a feud with the Friends of the Library.  Dennis Hays, a former U.S. ambassador and chairman of Fairfax Library Advocates, a group of residents at war with library officials said, “Nothing can take the place of a book.”  That view is a bit too narrowly focused, in my opinion.

 Here in South Carolina, the Richland County Library System is exploring a new concept in library service called the “Library as Studio.”  The library’s leaders are shifting “the library from being a warehouse of books to a place of vibrant 21st century learning.”  The Library as Studio concept “is about creating the conditions that promote the activities that are timeless, even though the tools are not. The goal is a library that will grow for 20 years.”  Creating spaces for creativity has required some renovating of the central library and removal of book stacks.  Richland County has just embarked on their evolution into a “studio” library.  Time will tell if the community embraces the new service model.

As State Librarian Leesa Aiken pointed out to the couple, our community and the market have spoken.  E-books are not a passing fad.  They have changed where and when we read.  As Neil Irwin of the Washington Post points out, we discovered that “e-books are well suited to some types of books (like genre fiction), but not well suited to other types (like nonfiction and literary fiction) and are well suited to certain reading situations (plane trips) but less well suited to others, like lying on the couch at home (speaking from experience, he is dead wrong on this one.  If he had said reading in the bathtub, I’d agree).”  His observation that “the e-book may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audio books have long been, rather than an outright substitute” is, I believe, right on the mark.  Each of us will make our choice of whether to read a print or digital book based convenience.  For this reason, e-books are not going to replace the printed book. 

Those predicting the end of print books because of the rapid growth of e-books appear to have been wrong.  A look at the e-book market shows those years of double digit increases in e-books sales are now past.  In the first quarter of 2013, sales were up only 5% from a year earlier, compared with 28% in 2012, and a 252% in 2010.  Growth in e-book unit sales was just 1% last year.  E-books sales appear to be about to plateau as about 25% of books sales.  Print book sales have even enjoyed a bit of resurgence in the past year.  The consumer and the market just may have passed judgment on the popularity e-books!

 In a time of tight budgets, we need to set priorities on spending on print and digital books.  The priorities are changing.  Yes, spending on e-books will grow.  Spending on print books will go down, especially for print reference books.  The only question will be how much and when.  That will be determined by the demands of the community we serve.

 So what does all this mean for what you will find at any of the four “brick and mortar” locations, Darlington, Hartsville, Lamar, and Society Hill.  There will always be plenty of print books!  We are not going to cut our print collection by tens or hundreds of thousands (we only have about 250,000 books to begin with). This is not to say that a branch’s collection could be reduced a bit in the future to create more public computer or meeting space.  We are committed to buying the best in print and audio books for you.  This year the Board and staff has set aside additional funds for book purchases, particularly at Darlington and Society Hill, to refresh and beef up those collections.

 The Library is passionately committed to providing e-books, e-magazines, and e-audio books for our “digital branch.”  The clock cannot be turned back to a time before e-books.  They are here to stay and personally I am glad.  Count me among those who enjoy the convenience of e-books.  The Library will be buying more e-books this year.  Their use has increased every year, so it only makes sense we will commit more funds to purchasing e-books.

July 27, 2015 

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 29 December 2015 )