Americans combined to buy an estimated 7 million Kindle Fires and Nook Tablets during the 2011 Christmas shopping season, according to consulting firm Forrester Research. They’re likely to be a hot item again this year: nearly 40 percent of parents with children between ages 2 and 13 are expected to purchase an e-reader for their young ones as a Christmas gift, according to a study by Playscience and Digital Book World.
Last year, librarians weren’t necessarily ready for that onslaught, says Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association. They weren’t prepared for the questions that the public would have about their new toys and how they could check out books from the library digitally. They weren’t up to speed on the various devices (Kindles, Nooks, iPads) and the distinct questions that would come from those different constituencies.
But that was last year. They won’t be making the same mistake again.
“It used to be: What were people reading? Now it's: How are people reading?” says Sullivan. “The challenge with e-readers was always how much demand there would be. The demand is there now. And we recognize that.”
So what are they going to do about it? A few things. Libraries nationwide are planning formal workshops and one-on-one tutoring sessions to familiarize people with new e-readers with their devices and how they can connect with the library. Some are also developing more informal “gadget zoos,” which are more like open markets for people to share their e-reader experiences and ask questions of staff and their peers. They also have to prepare their digital collections for more readers, as individual e-books typically have a limited number of licenses and cost more than their print counterparts.
It’s also required a lot of staff training. Virginia's Fairfax County, for example, held five hourlong workshops for staff to update them on the latest devices and their functionality with the library's online database. This comes at a time when there are fewer people around to handle these responsibilities. According to a 2011 ALA report, 43 percent of all libraries reported staff layoffs after experiencing a collective 10 percent budget reductions that year—and 93 percent of larger libraries, serving 1 million people or more, cut their staff.
With those dwindling resources, the strain on public libraries is likely to be significant. Yet, as Sullivan recognizes, the demand will still be there. According to Pew Research, 32 percent of people who do not currently own an e-reader would be at least somewhat likely to go to their public library to learn how to use one. Libraries are also getting on the e-borrowing train, according to ALA: more than 76 percent offer e-books for checkout, doubled from five years. That means new e-readers are more likely to see their public library as a digital resource.
Fairfax County learned its lesson two years ago, as help desks at their 23 branches were flooded with inquiries, both over the phone and in person, from new e-reader owners. So last year, they prepared. They're repeating the formula again this year, says Ted Kavich, program and educational services manager for the Fairfax County Public Library. Starting in January, that includes classes, one-on-one tutorials and readily available tip sheets to guide new users.
"This whole initiative is trying to get ahead of the game with the post-holiday time. That's certainly something we learned," Kavich says. "A few years ago, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, there is just a flood of e-book questions coming in.' There was some surprise just at the volume."
Want one more reason why 2012 could be different than previous years? The demographics of e-readers are changing. Though initially a hallmark of the young and hip, they’re now much more a part of mainstream culture. According to Pew Research, 23 percent of people between ages 50 and 64 read an e-book in the last year. Even 17 percent of those over 65 had read one. And the reality is, Sullivan says, those older readers are more likely to utilize the public library as a resource as they venture into e-reading.
“Those are people who equate reading with the library,” she says. “Many have been agnostics in terms of the new devices, because they've developed a comfort level with print. But now there are an equal number of people who are comfortable with digital. We want to remain a resource, regardless of the format.”