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Chicago Fri Jan 27 2012

Digital Divides and the Future of the Chicago Public Library

Wednesday it was announced that Chicago Public Library (CPL) commissioner Mary Dempsey is resigning.

Dempsey was appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and served for 18 years. Under Dempsey, the CPL built 44 new libraries and created programs such as One Book, One Chicago. Her resignation comes after a contentious situation this month due to the branches closing on Mondays due to budget and staff cuts.

Brian Bannon, chief information officer for the San Francisco Public Library, has been named as Dempsey's successor.

The biggest question is what will happen with the CPL without Dempsey at the helm. Under her leadership, the CPL became what it is today and, barring the reduction of hours, is available to the residents of most Chicago neighborhoods.

The potentially troubling aspect of the new appointment is that Bannon is a technology-oriented person. According to the Tribune, "Bannon, 37, spearheads initiatives and other computer-based learning programs in the San Francisco system." This raises the question as to whether or not the CPL might focus more on digital materials with Bannon at the helm. Some may think that e-Readers and e-Books are the wave of the future and no one will want to read paper, but a potential push towards digital technology could be problematic.

The very idea of wanting to focus on digital technology as a way of improving literacy or education is not a good idea. A key issue with technology is the accessibility individuals have. For example, a person with a low-income may only have access to technology through the CPL due to the cost of a computer as well as internet access. If a government institution pushes digital technology as a method of learning it is likely an even deeper class divide in literacy and education could occur because of a lack of technological access to educational resources and materials.

But a class divide is not the only issue with pushing digital materials at a library. Not everyone in Chicago owns an e-reader. Some people simply can't afford an e-reader and others prefer print. Furthermore, according to testimony Dempsey gave during the 2011 budget hearings, downloadable media accounted for less than 1 percent of the CPL's circulation. (Link opens a PDF file) For those who own an e-reader, there are few incentives to want to get an e-book from the CPL.

If someone owns a Kindle or a Nook e-reader, there is technology built into the system that allows users of those e-readers to lend books to their friends. A difference is that for Nook the LendMe technology is free but a Kindle user has to have an Amazon Prime account, which costs money, in order to be lend and borrow books.

Another problem is that the CPL's selection of e-books isn't that great. For example, if you want to read the a fairly new book it is not available from the CPL to be downloaded as an e-book. Meanwhile the new book can be downloaded from an e-book store for reading and the book will cost less than buying the print edition. However, a delayed availability for a new e-book from the library is just like waiting for the print copy of the book.

The legacy of Dempsey is likely to be that she helped improve the massive system of information that circulated 9,764,381 items in 2011. Yes, the system faced struggles--the Sun-Times has a very gossipy article about alleged problems between her and Mayor Emanuel--but if anyone can find a part of the Chicago government that hasn't faced struggles in the course of even ten years, please share it in the comments.

It would be nice if Bannon would improve the libraries and possibly expand services to people who need books. A focus on expanding e-books or other digital materials for Chicagoans could be a bad idea at this point in time. Ultimately, whether or not the new CPL commissioner can carry on Dempsey's legacy and if the libraries will be less resistant to cuts is what Chicagoans will wait to see.

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CL / January 28, 2012 10:21 PM

I'm not sure what the issue of lending to friends has to do with the public library. Downloading CPL books to the Kindle is free -- you don't need an Amazon Prime account.

I think a lot more people would use ebooks if the selection were better and if they had more "copies" of the popular books (rights allowing the same book to be checked out to multiple patrons at once). Currently, the waiting lists for popular titles are laughably long -- sometimes 50+ people ahead in line -- and even lesser known titles often have a waiting list of 5-10 people. Since you can only put a hold on 3 books at once, you have to pick the titles you want most and then just wait for weeks. But the long waiting lists show there is demand for ebooks. If the library had more "copies" and a wider selection, far more than 1% of total circulation would come from ebooks.

The point about leaving low-income residents behind is definitely an important one, though, and it's important that ebooks don't take the place of regular books. And, as much as I love ebooks and really want CPL to improve the selection, I also wonder if they will eventually hurt the library because there is no income from fines. Ebooks just expire and "return themselves" so there are never late fees. It's great for me, but bad for the library because it's a lost source of revenue.

Monica Reida / January 29, 2012 12:44 PM

CL, The point with lending books to other users is that with that ability, there isn't a need to use the library if a friend has it. For example, I own a Nook and it would be a lot easier for someone else who owns a Nook to borrow my e-Book copy of The Hunger Games rather than get it from the CPL especially with the wait list for e-Books.

It's possible that if they handled popular books like they handle the physical copies—even when One Book, One Chicago is going on, you can still get a copy of the selection in my experience—it could help improve that circulation as well as the desire for people to want to use e-Books. Again, they also need a better selection and I think the CPL reducing the amount of holds a person can place could be problematic, not to mention that it is a loss of revenue for the CPL.

mm / January 30, 2012 10:56 AM

For a better understanding of why there may be a long wait for an e-book from the CPL and public libraries nationwide for that matter, this article from the Washington Post can help: The example is Fairfax County, but their experience is typical of all public libraries. Many publishers will not sell their eBooks to libraries.

CL / January 30, 2012 12:21 PM

Monica -- thanks for clarifying the point about lending

MM -- Thanks for the article. I can see why publishers want to restrict ebooks. Not because of "piracy" but because if libraries could meet demand, patrons could read whatever they wanted from home without paying, and without the inconvenience factor that leads many people to buy books instead. It would be the same as piracy (downloading and reading for free, whenever you want) but legal. But that doesn't mean it's right to restrict access, just like it's not right to restrict access to physical books.

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