The bookworm has turned ... toward the web.
The North Country Library System is nearing a deal to offer audiobooks and e-books through a downloadable database. Patrons will be able to download digital versions of library materials from a website onto portable computers and other handheld devices 24 hours a day. The database will be unveiled by the end of the year.
Library officials would not disclose which outside company would provide the service, but said they're finalizing negotiations that would bring troves of materials available at the click of a mouse — with a library card log-in — for a $12,000 yearly subscription fee that the library system would pay. Library system Director Stephen B. Bolton said he hopes the individual libraries will invest a total of $10,000 to $12,000 in purchasing materials on top of that.
"We're ready to move forward," Mr. Bolton said.
The move is part of a national trend of libraries offering e-books — an electronic book medium whose popularity is exploding because of new products including Amazon.com's Kindle, Sony's Reader and Apple's iPad — and audiobooks, a narrated book medium that has been around since the days of the cassette but now can be delivered to MP3 players or laptops.
A study released in June by the American Library Association found that 66 percent of libraries in the country offer e-books, nearly double the rate in 2007. And 83 percent offer Internet-based audio, up from 38 percent in 2007.
"I think libraries have always been about meeting people where they are," said Larra L. Clark, a project manager for the statistics department of the national library association. "This is what people want."
There is consternation among library advocates that e-book sellers are devising technology and marketing aimed at individual consumers, rather than libraries.
But that didn't stop New York City's public library system, which was a pioneer in the field, offering a "virtual library" in 2003. Counted by itself, its virtual library now ranks third in circulation out of the city's 89 branches, according to library officials.
"The numbers really speak volumes," said Miriam S. Tuliao, an official at the city's library system who played a major role in bringing the virtual database to fruition. "By having additional formats, it increases the usage. Twenty-four/seven access is critical, especially at a time when we are eager to keep branches open later but are unable to because of funding. Having this as an option ensures that there's greater access."
New York City is one of 21 other library systems in the state that offer audio books, said Carol A. Desch, the coordinator for statewide library services at the New York State Library. The north country's system would become the 22nd — out of 23. It would become the 16th of 23 to offer downloadable e-books.
The change signals a shift in how patrons interact with library materials.
"The generation coming up, so many grow up with these handheld devices," said Patricia W. Musante, director of the Potsdam Public Library. "There's a change. You just have to keep offering things that will keep them coming into the doors. Sometimes it is electronic."
And with that change come certain worries. Will people still use physical libraries if they can just do it from home?
"I wonder what libraries are going to look like in the future," said Barbara J. Wheeler, director of the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library, Watertown. "Maybe we'll be virtual, too. Virtual, but viable."
For the time being, librarians have nothing to worry about. Despite the increase in materials accessible from home, more people are walking through library doors every day nationally and locally, spurred by efforts to provide such services as meeting spaces, job-search help and computer training. The image of a librarian's scolding "Shh!" is becoming increasingly rare.
"I'm optimistic about the role of libraries in the future," Ms. Clark said. "We're going to change as the needs of our patrons change. That community role will continue to be very important."