The news sent shock waves through the publishing industry: In the second fiscal quarter, amazon.com—the world’s largest online book retailer—had sold more electronic books than hardbacks for the very first time.
For literary luddites, this was the canary in the coal mine.
For techno-bibliophiles, it was a beacon of hope.
Nearly everyone was surprised at just how quickly the page had turned. Not so long ago, we readers were mostly skeptical of e-readers. Kindle who? Nook what? Who the hell needs another electronic device in their lives?
But now, trendsetting commuters have converted, and Apple’s iPad promises to expand the market even further, possibly doing for e-books what iTunes did for digital music.
Even libraries—those bastions of classic bookdom—have been early adopters. Yes, unbeknownst to many Burqueños, the Albuquerque/
“We need to be able to provide whatever new media formats are in demand by our customers,” says Natasha Casteel, the library system’s assistant director. “Back when CDs and DVDs came along, libraries were quick to adopt those, too. Whatever direction our customers are taking us in is the direction our funding is going to go.”
According to library records, its digital collection includes more than 6,000 items (665 e-books, 4,523 audiobooks and 1,152 videos) that can be downloaded 24/7 by anyone with an active library-card number and an on-line personal computer. Digital books and videos can be checked out four at a time, and they are “due” (that is, they automatically disappear from your computer) after 10 days.
Step 1: Go to cabq.lib.overdrive.com.
Step 2: Install the free download software.
Step 3: Browse and download media.
But, wait, there’s a snag—or, actually, a few. The Albuquerque/
. “I’d much rather be able to carry around something where I can just download any book I’d like. I read voraciously and it’s a pain in the butt every couple of days to go to the library and check out a stack.”
And then there’s the rub of compatibility. The library’s e-books come exclusively in the Adobe Reader format, and the audiobooks are divided into MP3 and WMA (Windows Media Audio) files. Not all titles are available in all formats, and some e-readers— the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle, for example—are not currently supported.
Library Paraprofessional Tamara Grybko fields calls and e-mails in the customer service office at the Main Library in Downtown Albuquerque. Inquiries about digital media only number about a half-dozen per day, a small amount, she says, and mostly revolve around customer difficulty with the downloading process and compatibility issues. Grybko compares today’s contentious digital-format popularity contest to the fight-to-the-death showdown between VHS and Betamax in the ’70s.
“We’re doing the best we can to meet our customer needs in an industry that’s in incredible turmoil,” Grybko says. “Our customers have lots of really good questions: Why don’t you have this in MP3? Why don’t you have this in a format that I can download? And quite frequently, the best answer we can provide—even though it’s frustrating for everyone—is, That’s what’s also available to us.”
Two hours’ of informal polling by this reporter outside the busy San Pedro branch library suggests two things: First, Burque bookworms have strong feelings on both sides of the digital-media debate; and second, patrons who actually make visits to the physical building are apparently not the ones using the library’s downloadable technology—yet.
Darren Reynolds, a 40-year-old HVAC technician, is close to taking the plunge.
“I’m on the road for business a lot and I’m kinda tired of carrying around bulky books,” he says. “I’d much rather be able to carry around something where I can just download any book I’d like. I read voraciously and it’s a pain in the butt every couple of days to go to the library and check out a stack.”
For retired postal worker Jeff Jefferson, e-lending isn’t worth the trouble. “The last time I tried was probably a year and half ago,” he says. “It didn’t matter whether I was on my laptop or desktop, I couldn’t download. So I just quit trying. I only live two blocks away. It was easier to come in here and get the book.”
A 63-year-old writer named Ryan (who chooses not to disclose her last name) is vehemently opposed to e-books on principle, because of their vulnerability.
“All you need is a good coronal mass ejection,” she says, referring to a potentially dangerous solar phenomenon. “You take out the electrical grid and the satellites and where are we going to be? You could conceivably wipe the electronic words clear off the slate and our heritage is gone. We won’t even be able to access the texts because we won’t be able to turn on the electronics. It could happen.”
As for 24-year-old Matt Salas and 48-year-old Philip Lindquist, who go inside looking for a particular auto-repair book—they come out with a printout from a digital version. It hasn’t been downloaded from the library system, however, but pulled up on Google Books—the largest digital archive on the planet.
Which makes this reporter wonder: Even if Albuquerque’s library and its publicly funded kin around the world manage to stay abreast of every newfangled technology, how will they avoid being rendered obsolete by the services of infinitely wealthy global behemoths?
"Libraries and the people who work in them are about providing access to education, entertainment and information," says Grybko at the customer service office. "So long as there are people who want to understand their world, and so long as technology keeps changing as quickly as it has been, libraries will be there to help people navigate."