Libraries or e-books?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs Microsoft spends $300m on Barnes & Noble’s e-books, Tim’s still singing the praises of libraries…

‘Maybe I’m old-fashioned. But the first thing that occurred to me when I saw the news of Microsoft’s new stake in Barnes & Noble’s e-reader was – what about libraries?

‘Many people find e-readers invaluable, giving them access to devices which are lighter to carry than books. The ability to turn a book to large print on the screen is certainly very useful to those with sight difficulties. It isn’t hard to see why Microsoft has invested in Barnes & Noble to create a subsidiary for the American bookstore’s e-reader devices, and I’m sure many will be thrilled at the news that the Nook will be coming to the UK, bringing in someone new to compete with Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad.

‘But many people are cut off from these devices by their high prices. Others, especially older people, are just not comfortable with using electronic devices so regularly. Meanwhile, the UK’s libraries provide a fairly similar service – access to a very wide range of books – without customers needing to pay a penny. And many of them offer CDs, DVDs, tapes and videos as well as books.

‘During cuts over the last few years, libraries have often been the first to suffer. But what funds they have, they often spend on community initiatives, such as the partnership WaveLength started with Cambridge council to provide CD players from us and CDs from them on a door-to-door basis, or the wonderful Calibre service which provides audio books suitable both for those with sight difficulties, and those with learning or cognitive difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. Many councils run mobile libraries driven from street to street in vans, for those who can’t face the journey into town.

‘With all this on offer, we were surprised when our latest survey showed very few of our beneficiaries – even those mobile enough to use public transport – used libraries on a regular basis. Libraries are underfunded and underpublicized, but offer much more equal access to users. They cater for all income levels and for many different access needs; and when there’s a problem, a staff member is far more helpful than a computer company’s instruction manual!

‘So let’s remember that as exciting as new technology is, the importance of access to these new technologies – whether that’s e-readers, laptops or digital TVs – can never be underestimated.’