DOWNLOADING music often presents people with an uncomfortable choice: free or legal. But now North Vancouverites can download three tracks a week for free with a clear conscience. All you need is a library card.
The North Vancouver District Public Library's website, www.nvdpl.ca, now features a service called Freegal, which allows patrons to download and keep songs from its 500,000-title catalogue. The MP3 files are compatible with PCs, Macs, iPods and iTunes.
"Our patrons love downloadable material," said Heather Scoular, director of library services. "Our circulation in downloadable material in the past year went up 314 per cent and that tells us there's a need for this. I think there's a perception that digital media is free, and it's not. Just check your monthly Internet bill. But the public library's purpose is to be the people's university. Every single person can get that information and pursue their passions."
Scoular said the library will Dis be monitoring Freegal and updating it to follow the tastes of users.
"As a librarian, it's highly fascinating," she laughed. "It's only been up and running for a few days and there have been a lot of people downloading music. This is something you don't have to come to the library for. It's something you can do in the privacy of your own home. All you have to do is have a library card."
Freegal is just the latest expansion into digital and online media for the library. The three-branch system has had ebooks available for borrowing since 2008 and now holds 26,000 titles. The library also subscribes to a wide range of digital databases that allow people to read thousands of magazines, newspapers and books from around the world - for free.
"These are wonderful things for people doing research or for people just exploring things," she said.
While ebook circulation was slightly more than 1,700 last year, more than a million books were borrowed in 2010, along with 800,000 in other formats, such as DVDs.
"We're going to be living in two worlds," Scoular said. "Print is immensely popular but we have to speak to the new generation. Actually, we had an 'Experience ereaders' program here in our library in January and we had over 300 people at our door on a Saturday morning. And the majority of those people were over 45. So there is an appetite by all, we can't just stereotype that it's just young people."
Public libraries have come under threat in Eastern Canada, and some have questioned where they fit into a digital world. After 29 years as a librarian, Scoular insists they are as relevant as ever.
"I've seen a lot," she said. "When I started there was not a computer in the library. We had a card catalogue. I see this change in the world right now, the digital revolution, as a huge opportunity for libraries, just as I did when the Internet came on the scene. Many people predicted we wouldn't need public libraries. Our use continued to be huge. Literacy is beyond books and the librarian's role isn't the container, the book, it's providing the access to what people are looking for. Those are the values that libraries stand for. If you speak to any librarian in the world, it's that passion for getting that information to people. I think this is an opportunity for libraries to really show how skilled our staff are and how they can really help a community and also newcomers, people who are coming to a country and dealing with the newness and also new technology. There's no one else in society fulfilling that role except the public library."
As head of the busiest library system of its size in Canada, Scoular is cheerfully optimistic that the district library will continue to thrive - and change.
"There's going to be something next year and the year after. The library is no different from any other industry. We have to evolve or we die."