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Libraries can't rely on e-books for the future

Since I’ve worked in libraries for more than 30 years and often speak publicly, I’m sometimes asked, “In the future will libraries still need space for books if everyone is reading e-books?”

Yes, libraries will still need space for print books. Everyone who reads an e-book can also read a printed book. And they do. A Pew Research Center report published in October this year shows people who have e-readers continue to read print books.

But the whole e-book phenomenon isn’t really about books at all. What we’re seeing and hearing is media hype by a half dozen companies trying to create a market for a new product. From the point of view of technology corporations like Google, Amazon and Microsoft, the printed book is a product with a limited profit potential for the very reasons libraries and families love them. A book is durable and reliable. It doesn’t break when the toddler drops it or your teenager sits on it. Treat a book right and you only have to buy it once. Almost any paperback will outlast the most expensive e-reader.

Still, I understand why some people buy e-readers, despite their expense and limited life expectancy. After more than a decade of technological development the industry seems to have finally engineered a format that is likable enough. It’s not as economical as borrowing a book from a public library, or even buying several books — but if one reads a lot of books or magazines, doesn’t want to keep a physical copy and money is not an issue; then I can see the attraction of an e-reader.

The Lake Oswego library offers more than 30,000 titles in an electronic format but fewer than 15,000 were borrowed last year. Each e-book file only gets used an average of once every two years. For the rest of the physical collection of 237,000 titles, each item is borrowed more than six times a year. E-books make up more than 10 percent of what the library offers but they account for far less than 2 percent of the library’s circulation of 1,350,000.

For public libraries, there’s a vital difference between e-books and printed books — and it’s not about shelf space. It’s about ownership. Libraries can’t own the electronic version of a book. Libraries can only lease temporary access to the electronic files. If a library doesn’t pay for access to the e-book files, then overnight the books are no longer available — it would be like a fire swept through.

Libraries have, appropriately, incorporated this new format for reading print, but that’s no reason to alter our plans for expanding our public library. E-books are a risky foundation for the library’s core service. If we rely on e-books, our public knowledge and literary heritage would become a hostage requiring annual payments to a private corporation. No librarian who values the public library’s role of providing information and knowledge to everyone would ever let that happen.'

Darrel Condra, Lake Oswego, is a proponent of Lake Oswego Measure 3-405.