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IMLS Announces Grant to Identify Library E-Book Strategies

The rise of e-books is one of the most important developments in public libraries in this decade.

Washington, DC—Today the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) announced a $99,957 grant to OCLC for "The Big Shift: Advancing Public Library Participation in Our Digital Future." The purpose of the grant is to more fully understand the challenges that U.S. public libraries face in providing e-book content to borrowers.

"Now is the time to work together so that the rise of e-books does not result in a society where content is actually less accessible than it was in the era of print," said IMLS Director Susan Hildreth."As a society we depend on the free flow of information and ideas to strengthen our economy and our democracy. I am confident that we will find new strategies that embrace exciting new digital innovations and continue to deliver essential library services."

The rapid increase in e-book ownership in the past year alone has created an even greater demand for e-content at U.S. public libraries. In fact the number of public libraries that offer e-books has doubled in the past five years—to 76 percent from 38 percent, according to a new American Library Association report. Thirty-nine percent of libraries also offer e-readers for check-out to their patrons.

A new study released by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project identifies some of the opportunities and challenges faced by public libraries for this growing line of service. The report states that 12 percent of people borrowed an e-book from their libraries in 2012. Yet the report documents significant difficulties:

  • 56 percent of e-book borrowers from libraries said that at one point or another they had tried to borrow a particular book and found that the library did not carry it.
  • 52 percent of e-book borrowers said that at one point or another they discovered there was a waiting list to borrow the book.
  • 18 percent of e-book borrowers said that at one point or another they found that an e-book they were interested in was not compatible with the e-reading device they were using.

The study also reports a wide range of library concerns with the cost and availability of titles often related to terms set by publishers.

"Public libraries provide equal opportunity to their communities," said Patrick Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, OH and advisor to the program. "And in a digital age, this must include digital content. This program complements ongoing work to engage public library leaders in developing specific strategies that will restore public access to commercial content in any format."

This award builds on an IMLS-supported public library discussion hosted by Martin Gomez at the Los Angeles Public Library in November 2011. Gomez (University of Southern California) and Brian Bannon (Chicago Public Library) will also provide advice on the program's grant activities, which will be closely coordinated with the American Library Association's Digital Content and Libraries Working Group, chaired by Sari Feldman (Cuyahoga County Public Library) and Robert Wolven (Columbia University).

The purpose of the IMLS award is to ensure that all Americans continue to have access to commercially produced content through their local public libraries even as formats change. Grant activities will include the following:

  • Investigating the nature and extent of challenges public libraries are facing in this area, and identifying possible solutions
  • A convening of public library leaders and others to set specific strategies to ensure public access to digital content
  • Reporting on strategies that all public libraries can use to advance their own work in local communities

"Our members tell us that the primary concern in public libraries today is keeping communities connected to information and communication technologies, and to content as it shifts to digital formats," said Cathy De Rosa, Global Vice President of Marketing for OCLC. "We appreciate continued IMLS investment in research and support for public libraries as they work to ensure equal access for all."

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