Alma Lewandowski really likes the late psychologist Carl Jung. The Richland resident travels to Portland about once a month to attend meetings of the Oregon Friends of C.G. Jung, a group dedicated to studying Jung's work.
And her iPod Nano, loaded with Jung's lectures and books that she downloaded from the Richland Public Library, always makes the trip with her.
"It's a five-hour drive; you can listen to them the whole time," she said.
Lewandowski is among a small but increasing number of people requesting electronic resources from Tri-City libraries, from e-books and digital audiobooks to music and movies.
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Libraries throughout the Mid-Columbia still are dominated by bookshelves filled with bound volumes, and officials said they expect that to continue in the near future.
But the pervasiveness of technology is leading to a buildup of e-resources -- with its own benefits and challenges.
"It's all in flux right now," said Judy McMakin, collections development supervisor for the Richland Public Library.
E-reader popularity soars
Books and other printed materials still are the primary items checked out of libraries. For example, of the 73,774 items checked out from the Richland library in July, fewer than 2 percent were e-resources such as e-books.
But the demand for e-resources is growing.
About one-third of Mid-Columbia Libraries' patrons have access to an e-reader, not counting tablet computers such as iPads.
Michael Huff, director of collections for Mid-Columbia Libraries, said the library system had 4,000 e-book and digital audiobook checkouts in 2009, the first year the service was offered. That jumped to 50,000 checkouts last year.
And already this year, he said, "We've already surpassed our 2011 mark."
It still is just a fraction of the 2.1 million items that are checked out annually.
Libraries in the Mid-Columbia system, in Richland and in the Walla Walla Rural Library District all subscribe to OverDrive, an online service that allows patrons to borrow and download e-books, digital audiobooks and other media to their e-readers and devices using a library computer or their own at home.
The libraries buy the titles they want to have available to patrons.
Mid-Columbia Libraries has more than 45,000 titles and the Walla Walla Rural Library District has nearly 5,200 e-books available through its portal.
The Richland library has just 1,700 titles available, but it also provides customers with links to almost two dozen websites with tens of thousands of free and public domain e-books and other e-resources.
Library officials and patrons said there are a lot of advantages to using digital media. When the loan period expires, a borrowed item simply disappears from a patron's electronic device, so they don't have to remember to return it.
Richland resident Norma Witherspoon, who recently received her husband's Kindle after he upgraded to a Kindle Fire, said she sees the device as being handier than a real book.
"It's easier to read than some library books and easier to hold," she said.
Prosser Mayor Paul Warden said he and his wife have a Barnes & Noble Nook and a Kindle Touch, along with an iPad. He said they check out six to seven e-books each month. Voracious readers, Warden and his wife started using e-readers largely because of logistics.
"If we go on vacation, we used to pack 10 pounds to 15 pounds of books," he said.
The devices are becoming so popular that the Richland and Walla Walla rural libraries are going a step further and loaning out e-readers.
Carlotta Richardson, manager for the Touchet branch of the Walla Walla Rural Library District, said six Kindles will be available for her library's book club members to borrow this fall.
Richland will offer up Nooks and Kindles, bought by the Friends of the Richland Public Library, for patrons to borrow beginning in September.
Expanding online resources
But e-books and digital audiobooks aren't the only ways libraries are meeting the demand for e-resources.
Jon Stuckel, information technology director for Mid-Columbia Libraries, said 150 to 220 people use the library system's computers each day. The wireless network, which is free to use, has seen 300 percent growth this year compared with last year.
Demand for internet service is one of the reasons the library welcomed a recent expansion of the state's broadband network, especially to rural branches, such as Kahlotus, which still was using DSL for internet access.
"Their DSL was so oversubscribed, we couldn't even get (the bandwidth) we were paying for," Stuckel said.
Internet access at libraries also has made them vital community centers, where people come to do personal research, type up rsums or connect with friends and family via social media.
"If you want to read a paper in India today, we have a database for that," Huff said.
In Richland, patrons have access to Freegal, an online service that allows patrons three free music downloads a week from the Sony music catalog.
The library also sponsors Tech Thursdays, a weekly gathering where patrons can come in to get help with an e-reader, get information on connecting to library e-resources or practice on one of the library's e-readers.
Cynthia Nicacio brought her 14-year-old son, Carlos, in last week to get an introduction to his new iPad.
Carlos will be a freshman at Tri-Cities Prep this fall, and students are being required to buy e-readers to replace their textbooks. Now the self-described heavy reader also will have access to the Richland library's online catalog.
"I'll probably be borrowing a lot of books," he said.
E-book does not equal free
But for all their benefits, e-resources have their limits.
Huff said not all publishers allow libraries to buy e-books because of concerns about people illegally copying content.
E-books and other digital media also are typically used by younger patrons, while older customers are less likely to use them because of a lack of familiarity with the technology.
Then there's the cost.
It's one thing to buy several physical books that can be accessed by anyone, but libraries now are faced with buying books in two formats. McMakin said e-books often cost as much as a regular book, at least for newer titles.
"That's the real challenge -- of stretching our dollars," McMakin said.
Libraries also are needing to replace outdated forms of media. Almost no libraries offer books on cassette anymore. Digital audiobooks now are making books on CDs obsolete.
McMakin said streaming video might eliminate the DVDs that Richland offers. And all this transition will cost money.
Some patrons said they see e-books and digital audiobooks becoming a bigger part of their lives and society at-large.
Lewandowski said she's become so used to listening to books on her iPod she may forgo having surgery for her cataracts. John Witherspoon said he anticipates libraries and school districts moving more into e-resources until books are completely phased out.
But other patrons and library officials said they don't see books going away.
Huff said he expects cutbacks in how many physical books are added to his collections in the future, but he'll still buy them. Others pointed out that even people who use e-books typically borrow paper books, as well.
"There's still quite a few people who want to hold a real book," Richardson said.
Even Carlos, who admittedly was excited about the games he could get for his iPad, said he won't ever move away from enjoying a good, real book.
"I like physical books. I like feeling the pages," he said.