Local libraries face big digital costs on shrinking budgets

Photo courtesy of Tuscaloosa Public Library

By WVUA 23 Digital Reporter Emilee Boster

More than 62,000 people have a Tuscaloosa Public Library card, meaning they have access to library books at TPL’s four locations in addition to free subscriptions for digital resources and online libraries.

Online libraries work similar to physical libraries in that patrons check out books, but instead of stacked on library bookshelves, the book selection is available from devices like smartphones, tablets or computers. 

But those digital copies work the same way as physical copies, and that includes their potential cost for libraries.

The high cost of ebooks is one more thing the Tuscaloosa Public Library has to worry about in the wake of an ever-dwindling budget. Last October, the system said it was forced to close three branches for at least one day a week and decrease their available digital resources.

TPL is funded by the city of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County and the city of Northport, along with additional money coming from the state, donations and grants. Another source of funding is the Friends of the Library Bookstore, a shop inside the main branch run by a volunteer group.

The most recent big budget cut slashed TPL’s resource funding by 30%. Because of that decrease, they’re spending less on online resources including ebooks. Why? They cost more than physical books.

For reference, a physical copy of a New York Times Bestseller may cost the library $17, but the same book in ebook format may be as high as $55. The cost for each ebook fluctuates based on the platform and book publisher.

TPL first invested in online libraries in 2011 with OverDrive, which now runs the app Libby. This platform has an annual fee of $6,000 for libraries, and that doesn’t include the cost of the ebooks.

One lending model is one copy to one user with the library owning the titles of the books.

TPL uses the one-copy-one-user model for most of its audiobooks. For physical CDs, the library pays $30 to $50. For a digital copy, the library pays anywhere from $60 to $100.

Another lending model is metered access, meaning the library owns a book title for a specific amount of time or checkouts. Once the title has circulated the pre-specified time, the library loses access. This model helps the library monitor a book’s shelf life, the amount of time that a book circulates before demand dies. 

For example, book juggernauts like the Harry Potter or Game of Thrones series remain popular for decades, while some mega-popular bestsellers fall off the “must-read” lists within a few months.

Some publishers also choose to lend their books by cost per circulation, which is what TPL’s other online library platform, Hoopla, uses. Unlike Libby, Hoopla contains more than just books. It also has movies and television shows.

Hoopla has no platform fee for libraries, but they pay a cost-per-circ fee, meaning the library pays for each checkout. According to TPL, that’s about $2.14 per checkout.

Since the beginning of this year, TPL reported more than 12,000 checkouts and 768 new patrons through Hoopla. With an average checkout of $2.14, that’s nearly $27,000 TPL has spent on Hoopla resources so far this year. 

Fees for Libby’s ebooks, though, are much higher than Hoopla’s $2.14 average. Those can range anywhere from $5 to $10 per checkout. 

The final lending mode is simultaneous users, which is what TPL uses for its Magazine Collection. That requires the library pay an annual fee, but there’s no limit on checkouts.

In addition to Libby and Hoopla’s virtual libraries, a TPL library card gives patrons access to LinkedIn Learning, Alabama Virtual Library, Rocket Language, Chilton Library, Homework Alabama, Learning Express, Homework Alert and Drive Test.

These online platforms often have an annual subscription cost and are used by locals and area college students. TPL’s subscription to LinkedIn Learning gives the library 75 simultaneous licenses. University of Alabama students are the highest user of this resource, with some classes encouraging students to get a library card so they can use the platform for classwork and instructional videos.

TPL Deputy Director Amy Patton said about 12% of TPL’s funding goes toward these online resources, but that percentage used to be much higher and closer to 20% before the budget cuts.

Patton said she believes these online resources are worth the cost for the library because patron demand for ebooks and digital audiobooks is evident in how many patrons are waiting for digital copies of material. 

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Photo courtesy of Tuscaloosa Public Library

On most online library platforms, patrons can simply click to borrow a book, but if the book has reached its checkout limit, patrons can place a hold on it and join a virtual waiting list. 

For TPL’s Libby users, that means popular books could have a wait period of more than two months. Currently, there are more than 8,000 waitlisted books on TPL’s Libby account.

That wait could be shortened by buying or leasing more copies of high-demand books, but that’s out of TPL’s current budget.

“The number of holds and wait times has gone up,” said TPL Director of Outreach Services Marti Ball. “Prior to some of these budget cuts, I was able to at least put Band-Aids on some of that stuff and make it a little bit better for the user, but now we just can’t. We’ve had to make some very tough decisions in the last two or three years.”

To fulfill all the holds on even the most popular books would be impossible under these circumstances, Ball said. One New York Times Bestseller audiobook currently has 115 holds on Libby. If TPL wanted to fulfill all of those holds at once, it’d be shelling out $403,100. 

If TPL’s budget decreases futher, it would have even less money to allocate toward online resources for patrons. That could result in longer wait times, more holds and fewer free platforms available with a library card. 

If you’re interested in supporting TPL and its mission, you can help by shopping at the Friends of the Library Bookstore located beside the Main Branch on Jack Warner Parkway. The community donates books that are then sold for less than $3. That revenue goes to the library, and sales average about $80,000 a year.

You can also become a member of Friends of the Library by paying an annual membership of $30. Your membership fee gives you 12 free books from the Bookstore each year.

The Tuscaloosa Public Library Foundation, which is a nonprofit that supports TPL, also accepts online donations that help fund the library’s services.

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