Grand Strand libraries adding e-books, other streamlining media into circulation

bdickerson@thesunnews.comApril 29, 2013 

— It’s a bit ironic that Les and JoAnna Jones are getting a tutorial on how to use their new Kindle in a conference room at the Surfside Beach Library filled with stacks and stacks of hardback books.

But it’s not as ironic as it once was because of the way libraries are adapting to emerging technology.

The physical selections in the Surfside Beach Library run the gamut from classics and poetry to self help and non-fiction.

Now, any of those genres are just a click away on devices such as the one the Joneses are trying to master.

Welcome to entertainment and information in the 21st century, where more and more people are trading in their library cards, video store memberships and newspaper subscriptions for e-readers, Netflix and online news gathering.

The Horry County Memorial Library System has officially joined the fray, having recently begun offering e-books to its patrons.

In 2009, when the county began a $12-million building program that officially ends Tuesday with the reopening ceremony for the newly-renovated Bucksport Library, some residents were skeptical.

Cliff Boyer, director of the Horry County Memorial Library System, fielded questions about whether the new libraries – in North Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, Aynor, Carolina Forest and Bucksport – were a good investment given the emergence of the Internet.

“We’ve got Google. Why do we need libraries?” they’d ask.

Google and other such search engines are good for certain things, but that’s not a good substitute for a well-staffed library that helps patrons become more information literate, he told them.

To that end, while there are no plans for more new libraries in Horry County, the library’s small selection of e-books – 340 strong – is expected to continue growing.

“New technology doesn’t kill the old technology. It just compliments it,” said Michael Easler, a reference librarian at Surfside Beach Library who offers one-on-one sessions on how to use e-readers.

Easler was working with the Joneses Thursday morning. The couple got their new Kindle as a gift from their son and were filled with questions, such as the difference between wireless and Wifi access, how much data it takes to stream a movie, an explanation on what the magnifying glass icon is – it’s a search engine – and how to read books.

“This is a new world to us,” Les Jones said.

The Surfside Beach couple have always read books and watched movies in the traditional way. That will change once they’ve mastered the Kindle, a device they revere for its small size and sheer convenience.

“It’s a take and go,” JoAnna Jones said.

Boyer said it was two years ago that a drop in price led to the “Kindle Christmas” and an upswing in requests for e-books.

After some false starts, library officials decided in January to go with 3M Cloud Library to satisfy e-readers. Patrons began choosing amongst the 340 e-books currently available just a few weeks ago.

Boyer said the service is efficient because it works across multiple devices such as Kindles, iPads, iPhones, Windows PC and Mac.

“It was one of the few you could actually return a book early,” he said.

The selection started out so small because the library only had $10,000 in their budget to put toward e-books, Boyer added. It’s going to continue to grow on a regular basis, with officials putting some of its requested $600,000 for the 2014 fiscal year into growing not only its e-book selection, but other media such as downloadable audio books.

Tracey Elvis, youth services librarian for Conway Library, said streaming media was a part of the conversation when library officials spent $4.1 million on a new facility in 2006.

Was it worth the investment? Elvis thinks so.

“We needed more room for everything,” she said.

Conway Library went from a building housing eight public computers to one with 28. And they’re always occupied, Elvis said.

“Libraries will be here to stay, even with e-books,” she said.

A new library is expected to open in Pawleys Island in August 2014, said Patti Burns, head of adult service with the Georgetown County Library System.

Georgetown County’s libraries offer almost 1,600 e-books to readers, Burns added. She said they do create a little concern, especially when a new library will be built soon, but ultimately the e-books are a product patrons still have to check out.

Plus, Georgetown County’s libraries offer computers, gaming, faxing, local history and genealogy, she said.

“We’re not just books,” Burns said.

The streaming of popular media continues to grow, but to the detriment of those companies still peddling the physical product.

In January, Dish Network Corp. announced its plans to close about 300 Blockbuster stores across the country, losing about 3,000 employees and leaving only 500 locations left in the U.S.

That’s in sharp constant to the video streaming and DVD-by-mail service, Netflix, which last week announced it gained two million subscribers in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2013.

Netflix took its first major leap in a new direction in early February with the debut of "House of Cards," a critically acclaimed series made exclusively for Netflix.

Then there are newspapers, which have suffered for years as more and more readers flock to the Internet and social media for details on events both locally and nationally. Layoffs and furloughs are a reality for journalists all across the country.

As far as libraries go, Boyer isn’t expecting the same fate.

“I love the business model. You can sell the books and never have a warehouse,” Boyer said.

E-books won’t make libraries obsolete, despite publishers saying only 50 percent of their content will be available in hardback in five years, he said.

Libraries will continue to adapt, just like they did with the release of VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu rays and, of course, the Internet.

There are many other uses for libraries beyond simply checking out a book or movie, Boyer said.

“People still need help connecting with information,” he said.

That’s evident in couples like the Joneses, or, as Boyer mentioned, someone who gets a specific medical diagnosis and comes to a local library and finds relevant information within its various databases.

While there are no new libraries on the horizon, officials hope to integrate a virtual branch this fall.

It will be available anywhere there’s internet access and will feature e-books, downloadable videos and audio books.

It’s all part of what Boyer says is the library system’s adapting to this new media age.

Ultimately, e-books will sit alongside physical books for readers’ attention. But one, Boyer feels, won’t replace the other.

“It’s a sensory experience when you read. It’s not just the eyes; it’s the feel of a book. Those things will never be replaced,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact BRAD DICKERSON at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_bdickerson.

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