Small town libraries in the Algoma region are growing concerned that their readers may not have the same levels of accessibility to electronic books as residents have in bigger urban centres.
As reported by the Canadian Press last week, libraries across Ontario are asking the government to create a more affordable provincewide digital public library, which would ensure residents in smaller municipalities have the same access to reading materials as people in larger cities.
Most libraries, big and small, are currently using an online service called Libby – an application funded through the Ontario Library Service (OLS) where users can download and access e-books, audiobooks, magazines, and other resources.
User access is free as long as the reader has a library card, but each library that facilitates the application must pay an annual fee to make certain resources available on the Libby app.
The Wawa Public Library pays around $1,500 each year to use Libby, and the branch's CEO Suzanne Jarrell says that while the costs make sense for the program, there are better alternatives that could be weighed.
“It’s a struggle for us as a small library to get the funding to get all the materials we need,” she says. “It’s working for us, but it’s a pretty hefty price.”
“I use Libby all the time myself as a user, and it’s definitely worth it’s while. But to have something that costs a little bit less and gives us more books to choose from would be amazing.”
Promoting the digital service more in recent years, Jarrell estimates around 200 e-books are checked out each month at the Wawa Public Library.
But according to Jarrell, the growing popularity of Libby has created a recurring issue for readers across Ontario.
“There’s a bit of a wait sometimes for the newer titles that come out,” she says. “To buy an e-book is very pricey for the libraries and OLS, so they can’t get enough for everybody all the time, which creates a waitlist – sometimes up to six months.”
“You can buy into more if you choose to on OLS, but we don’t have the funding. If I had a patron in our book club that wanted a particular book, we could purchase it, but it would be very pricey, and we’re not in a position to really do that.”
Meanwhile, Thessalon Public Library CEO/Librarian Norma LeBlanc explains that having access to internet is a must before the province even discusses creating a new digital system.
“They need to have internet available to everybody,” she says. “It’s fine if it’s all digital, but if it’s not accessible, then how can they access a digital public library? There isn’t a level playing field because of the discrepancies of who can get internet where.”
Recognizing that libraries in rural and remote communities across Ontario still don’t have access to the internet, LeBlanc feels fortunate that the Thessalon Public Library does – even when they’re not open.
“If you wanted an e-book and lived out where there isn’t stable internet, you can come here, download your book, and as long as you have battery, you can read it without Wi-Fi,” she says. “To me, that’s huge.”
While e-reading appears to be on the rise, LeBlanc says there’s still plenty of support for hard copies.
“There’s still a lot of people of all ages who like a book in their hands,” she says. “They don’t want e-resources. They prefer to read a book rather than an e-book. It’s really what your preferences are.”
Funded by their municipalities, the head librarians at the Wawa and Thessalon branches both agree that a revamped digital library would be a good idea, depending on the costs that would be incurred.
While they say fundraising efforts to support their libraries can sometimes be challenging, the benefits of being in a small town doesn’t go unnoticed.
“You get to know your people, they’re not just a number coming in and out, you develop a relationship with them,” LeBlanc says. “When we were closed during COVID and did curbside, I was picking out the books for the patrons. I knew what they wanted because you get to know them, and that’s pretty special.”
“I love the small-town feel of working here,” Jarrell adds. “I encourage people to make a visit to their local library as things have changed exponentially.”
“It’s not the ‘shush’ quiet place that you’re used to if you haven’t been here in a few years. We always have something going on.”