August 31, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Georgetown County, S.C., isn't known as a bustling hub of innovation. But as the county's library system adopts new technology, residents can connect to a world beyond their rural community.
The Amazon Kindle, the popular e-book reader, is the latest tool made available at Georgetown County Library, thanks to a national Library Services and Technology Act grant. With the $25,000 grant, matched by the libraries, the county acquired 25 Kindles for onsite use and about $2,500 worth of e-books.
"A library's mission is to preserve information and make that information available to the public," said Dwight McInvaill, director of the Georgetown County Library. "We started out with stone tablets and now we have Kindles."
Across the country in the past decade, the marriage between technology and libraries has matured with the rise of interactive gaming and hands-on digital tools. Providing these types of virtual resources to the public has been one component of making the case that Americans still need libraries in the digital age.
In March, in the first report of its kind, researchers found that found that 77 million people (one-third of Americans older than 14) use the Internet at public libraries to keep in touch with friends and family, do research and find jobs, according to the report, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries.
But in Georgetown, digital media still is relatively new territory.
"We faced challenges because we've never done anything like this before," McInvaill said. "We're a small, rural library system and we think this technology will interest young people, particularly young males. They're the hardest to reach."
As one of the first library systems in the state to offer the e-book reader, Georgetown Library hopes the devices appeal to young students in a county with a 38 percent school dropout rate, McInvaill said. The library system has already had success with its interactive gaming center, where teenagers can play video games; as part of the deal, students must check out four items each month.
A recent survey by Marketing and Research Resources Inc. revealed that 40 percent of portable e-reader owners read more than they did with printed books. With the Kindles available for teaching and reading (but not lending), McInvaill wants to tap into those literacy trends by offering Kindles as another option.
"We're still developing procedures for in-house use," he said. "But we think it's better to move ahead and learn by doing rather than waiting to get it absolutely perfect before proceeding."
According to McInvaill, many local residents don't have the means to buy new technologies, so the library helps bridge the generational and digital divides. Georgetown County Library offered a free class Tuesday, Aug. 31, on the wireless reading device. The tutorial only lasted about an hour because the devices aren't complicated, according to Library Adult Services Manager Patti Burns. And if users have questions, a new service -- "Book a Librarian" -- allows them to reserve time one on one with experts who can explain how the device works.
"We're really excited about doing this," McInvaill said. "I can't wait for us to try this with young people and see what their reaction will be with this technology."