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Library patrons check out a little tech support

| Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012

The Mt. Lebanon Public Library began by holding "gadget workshops" once or twice a week late last year, teaching patrons how to use their new tablets, e-readers and smartphones to download and read digital books.

But the devices were popular and the workshops were in demand, so in less than three months, the library bumped the sessions up to three or four a week, then more as staffers were trained to conduct them.

"I'd say we average about five 45-minute workshops a week, but I do a lot more of the impromptu ones at the reference desk -- maybe 20 or 30 a week of those," said Brandon Priddy, a former Apple Store employee and one of Mt. Lebanon's go-to guys when patrons drop in with questions. "The day after Christmas was like tech support day."

In the wake of a holiday season when the percentage of Americans owning e-reader devices nearly doubled, librarians and staff are spending hours each week teaching patrons how to use their new gadgets or even learning how to use the devices themselves.

Patrons' questions have included how to set up the applications and accounts to download books through the library or troubleshooting issues such as moving books they've purchased from the Internet to their reading devices.

Demand for downloadable e-books has been so high that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Library Association of Allegheny County have quadrupled their budget for e-book purchases this year, to $100,000 combined.

"We're trying to get as much as we can, as fast as we can," said Karen Shah, reference librarian and collection developer at Northland Public Library. "We're buying multiple copies of books so people don't have to wait as long."

After a countywide committee decides what books to buy, the Carnegie Library negotiates with publishers to purchase the e-books, which are downloaded to two services shared among all Carnegie branches and the local libraries in the library association.

Patrons can then use either their library's website or an application called Overdrive to check out and download available books to their devices. Each book has a due date, just like hardcover books, only in this instance, the e-book can no longer be read on that device unless it's purchased or checked out again.

Between Overdrive and its EBSCO host database, Allegheny County libraries have access to about 30,000 e-books, and should be able to add another 13,000 this year, officials said.

But not all books are available as e-books, and some publishers are wary of selling electronic editions to libraries out of fear that users could somehow make illegal copies. Nonetheless, the format continues to grow in popularity.

A growing, not just a passing trend

The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project estimated Monday that the percentage of American adults who own e-book readers or tablet computers nearly doubled from December 2011 to January 2012, with 19 percent of survey respondents reporting that they owned a tablet, and the same percentage reporting that they owned an e-reader. Altogether, Pew estimated that about 29 percent of Americans own at least one of the gadgets.

"There are (patrons) with varying levels of expertise. ... Some just need help downloading or troubleshooting, and those are things we usually can handle," said Cindee Landrum, assistant director of the Mt. Lebanon library. "Then we have people who got (e-readers) as gifts and have no idea what to do with them. We turn them over to people like Brandon to work with them step-by-step, and sometimes, that starts with, 'OK, here's how you turn it on.' "

At small libraries such as Crafton -- which has only six people on staff, two of whom are full-time employees -- the help they can offer depends largely on individual librarians' expertise and availability.

"I'm fortunate that I have two people on staff who are both really good at figuring stuff out," said Cathy Robinson, director of the Crafton Public Library.

Some libraries have sent staff members to classes offered by the Carnegie Library system, though the constantly changing lineup of devices for reading e-books can make it hard to keep up.

"There are little quirks with every device," said Sharon Helfrich, Robinson Township Library director. For patrons who are still stumped, many libraries have posted links to the Carnegie Library's website at , which has step-by-step guides for using the most common devices.

Sarah Beasley, the Carnegie Library system's e-resources coordinator, said the Carnegie staff hosts regular Gadget Labs to teach people about their new devices, including one scheduled for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Squirrel Hill library. More than 350 library staffers from around the county have attended classes themselves.

"I believe we are at the crest of the learning curve, and the technological side of things will just get easier for everyone from here on out," she said.

"We've already seen the process of downloading library e-books get easier and more intuitive, and as staff spends more time helping people with e-readers ... it will become second nature, just like using an online catalog rather than a card catalog."

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