Library patrons checking Internet, not books

Nonfiction circulation begins to decline with popularity of computer

July 05, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

With millions of people logging onto the Internet daily, some libraries are reporting a decline in nonfiction circulation -- and stretching to adjust to new trends in information-gathering as patrons opt for instant cyber facts.

"If you're waiting for it to come out in a book, before it's printed the information can often be long in the tooth," said Jim Fish, director of the Baltimore County public library, where nonfiction circulation has dipped 3 percent from last year, and hits at the library's Internet site total 100,000 per week.

With 80 million Americans online today, the shift from printed matter is beginning to surface in circulation figures, said Linda Mielke, director of Carroll County's public library system, where checkouts of nonfiction are also down 3 percent from last year.

Figures that show reliance on the Internet have increased dramatically.

SAILOR, Maryland's online public information computer network, had 10.7 million hits from last December to May this year -- a 130 percent increase from the same period up to May last year, said Judy Cooper, spokeswoman for the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.

And most metropolitan-area libraries report that computer hits on their Web sites outnumber book circulation figures. Card catalogs are posted online, allowing patrons to peruse shelves from home and reserve books via computer.

An experiment among Maryland's public library directors with e-books -- palm-sized computers that download books -- is another potential challenge, Mielke said.

"It's phenomenal," Cooper said of changing practices. "It says people are becoming more computer savvy and really starting to depend more on the electronic sources."

For many students and their parents, the computer link has helped to ease homework stress -- and save time.

"It's fast, and you can stay at home and type in what you need," said Allison Bruns, 14, who will be a 10th-grader at Catonsville High School in the fall.

Her mother, Carole, who used to shuttle her three children to libraries, added: "I can now say, `Go upstairs and do your work.' It's more convenient, and they can zip on and find the information and zero in on it."

The trend was a hot topic among 20,000 U.S. librarians at the American Library Association's annual meeting recently in New Orleans, where a seminar called "Managing Technology" sparked debate about how to keep up with the rapid pace and high costs of information technology, said Carla D. Hayden, director of the Pratt.

While books are here to stay, Hayden said, librarians "are looking at how to balance the different formats" for costly online databases, which could include cooperative arrangements between library systems and requests for group discounts from online providers.

Of the Pratt's $23 million budget, 52 percent is spent on books such as reference works, fiction and biographies, which remain popular.

Hayden said the budget for computer databases is the same as for periodicals -- 14 percent each of the annual expenditure -- and online costs are expected to increase to 25 percent of the budget over the next three years.

Most of the database costs are for reference materials -- many of which used to be published annually and updated monthly. Today, those volumes, which include the Encyclopedia of Associations, business, biography and genealogy indexes and health reference sources, are updated daily and available at the touch of a keyboard.

"It's amazing," said Hayden. Pratt officials may soon reserve some of the library's 300 computers for database searches, she said. "It's a challenging time -- it's more of everything. We have to constantly relearn and learn new things. We're all taking refresher courses."

Enduring books

Most experts, though, are cautious about writing an obituary for print.

"You can't curl up with a CD-ROM," says Fish. "I don't see the book disappearing anytime soon. As a reading pleasure tool, you can't beat it."

In Harford County, Audra Caplan, associate director of the nine county library branches, said: "People still want to take books home.

"If you're doing a major paper, you need books," Caplan said. "The Internet has a lot of information that is not accurate -- we have a committee of librarians here trying to monitor Web sites to make sure they are up-to-date and see if they are viable and accurate."

`Shot in the arm'

Christine Hage, president of the Public Library Association, which includes 8,700 librarians, said the Internet has forced library officials into new roles as editors, too, scouring and rating Web sites for patrons.

"It's been a shot in the arm, a very empowering tool," Hage said. "It is attracting a new audience for us -- we see people dialing in on the Internet at the library's modem pool at 2 a.m. Some people have felt the Internet spells doom for the library, but it's been the opposite."

`Vast resource'

In Anne Arundel County, Internet hits outnumbered circulation figures last year by more than 1 million queries, said Andrea Lewis, public relations manager. Online services have expanded research horizons in the smaller community branches of Brooklyn Park, Crofton, Maryland City and Odenton.

"It's a vast, vast resource," Lewis said.

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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