EVANSDALE -- For decades, public libraries have ordered their stock from the traditional library book suppliers. Shannon Surly, director of the Evansdale Public Library, logs on to Amazon.com. She wants to get the most books for her library's bucks.
Surly says the Internet-based bookseller lets her buy more books with her roughly $600 a month book budget.
"Since there's so little in the book budget, I look for the best savings," she said. "We're buying more online."
She's not alone. A Courier survey of 12 public libraries in Northeast Iowa found that seven of the libraries order from the online booksellers. Public library officials in Denver, Dunkerton, Hudson, La Porte City and Oelwein said they purchase books from Internet retailers.
Most library officials said they use the Web merchants as a cheap and easy way to replace lost or damaged books, find out-of-print titles or quickly get a book on the shelf. Several said they purchase other materials like videos, too.
Across the nation, the low-prices of Internet-based book retailers are luring public libraries that have small or slashed budgets, said Clara Bohrer, president of the National Public Library Association.
The traditional library suppliers offer online ordering, too. But the online retailers sell new and used books at discount prices and have access to hard-to-find titles not available from traditional library suppliers.
"It's really the same as something we've been doing for years -- going to a local bookstore," said Bohrer, director of a public library in Michigan. "This is just online, and you get books shipped right to your door."
In addition to Amazon.com, a host of auction and discount sites like eBay and Half.com offer books for low prices. Another, thebookcart.com, sells used paperbacks for the cost of shipping. The books usually cost around $2 or less.
Without the Internet, Carol Thompson may have searched used bookstores for months without finding all the volumes to two sough-after series'. But online, Thompson, director of Grundy Center's Kling Memorial Library, found enough volumes to complete both sets -- 11 out-of-print mystery novels and nine large print volumes by a pair of Christian authors who are well-liked by her customers.
"It's just such a wonderful dimension, the Internet -- and being able to find the things you want," Thompson said.
At the height of the hype over the "Lord of the Rings" films, demand for the popular J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy novels soared, and prices spiked. But they were affordable online, Surly said.
One of the books "was running $10 or more some places, then you check (online), and it's $3 for a decent copy," she said.
Most Northeast Iowa libraries that buy online say they use the Web sites as a back up, not as their main supplier.
"If a patron requests something we can't find elsewhere, we'll try Amazon.com," said Mary Mumby, director of the Denver Public Library. "Amazon is a back up for us."
Libraries in Northeast Iowa caught on within the past two years or more, though the idea has been around for longer, library officials say. But there's no way to say for certain how many libraries purchase books online.
Bohrer, of the public library association, said the practice surfaced at least five years ago when it was mentioned on a listserv for librarians.
But not all libraries followed or intend to.
To some, the drawbacks outnumber the advantages.
Officials at public libraries in Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Waverly, Independence and New Hampton said they don't order from online booksellers.
Many said a state-negotiated contract with major library suppliers such as Baker & Taylor Inc. gives them a better deal than Internet retailers.
Amazon.com, for example, offers libraries a corporate discount, but that savings doesn't always add up, several library directors said.
Under the contract, the libraries get up to a 45 percent discount depending on how many copies and the type of binding.
"We can get a better deal" with the contract, said Pat Ipsen, director of the New Hampton Public Library.
Patricia Coffie, director of the Waverly Public Library, doesn't dabble in ordering from the online retailers, either.
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"We're not stuck in the past," Coffie said. "It's just that we've looked at the puzzle and seen how the pieces fit."
Eunice Riesberg, administrator of Northeast Iowa Library Service Area, doubts most libraries will direct more of their business to the online retailers.
"Everybody's flirted with it," Riesberg said. "I don't see anything that would change that trend unless libraries are able to get that same discounting through Amazon or some other service."
"It just doesn't make sense to do it large scale if we can't get a better discount," she added.
Even if more libraries start purchasing from online sellers, the state contract probably wouldn't be affected, said Judy Jones, a consultant at the State Library of Iowa, noting that libraries aren't required to use the contract.
"The contracts are simply there for their advantage," Jones said.
Nonusers point to several other drawbacks. While books from traditional library suppliers come shelf-ready, those bought from online retailers don't.
It can take two to three days to put on labels, and type a recently arrived order into a library's computerized or paper card catalog, several library directors said. Books ordered from a major supplier can be entered into the system or on the shelf in minutes.
"The primary issue for libraries is the ability to integrate with their library automation systems and delivering cataloged and processed books," said Peter Clifton, chief executive officer of Ingram Library Services Inc., a major library supplier. "That's the lion's share of what we do."
Thick, library quality-binding isn't guaranteed either, sometimes leading to flimsy books with a shorter shelf life.
But library staff members visit the sites even if their institution doesn't order from the online retailers.
"That's one of the first places we'll go to look up the correct author, publisher and title when someone comes in and requests a book we don't have," said Laura Blaker, director of the Independence Public Library. "We use Amazon.com a lot for research purposes."
Uncertain business effects
If the practice becomes more common, Web-based booksellers could see an increase in sales. For now, the impact is uncertain.
An official at Alibris.com, an online-only bookseller that serves about 6,000 libraries, said public libraries are a growing part of its customer base.
"We're acquiring new library customers all the time," said Shelly Stuard, director of library services, adding that the company started in 1999 with about 100 library customers. Stuard said she couldn't say precisely how many public libraries the company serves.
A spokeswoman for Amazon.com, Tracy Ogden, declined to comment on her company's sales to libraries.
It's also largely unclear what effect the practice is having on the traditional library book suppliers.
Clifton, the chief executive officer of Ingram Library Services Inc., contends few libraries buy from the online booksellers.
"Libraries sometimes buy … books from Amazon and other Internet retailers, but it's relatively small," he said, but did not comment on the impact on his business.
"Libraries have the liberty to buy from whom they want," said George Coe, president of Baker & Taylor Inc.'s institutional division. "I really don't have any comment on any business trend or impact."
The Charlotte, N.C.-based, supplier serves about 30,000 libraries nationwide. The nearly 180-year-old company also supplies Internet retailers such as Amazon.com, Coe said.
For now, Surly, the Evansdale library director, figures a shift in library sales isn't hurting the traditional suppliers.
"They haven't called me and said, 'Hey, you used to be a customer, what happened?'" Surly said.
Adam Morris can be contacted at (319) 291-1461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.