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Libraries for reading? What an odd idea


Audio books like the Da Vinci Code are as or even more popular than the hard copy of the book. (Shradhha Sharma/CNS)


Audio books on tape remain the most popular, even though audio versions on CDs and MP3s are catching up on the popularity quotient. (Shradhha Sharma/CNS)


In the wake of their increasing popularity, most libraries across the U.S. now have huge sections devoted to only audio books. (Shradhha Sharma/CNS)


William Suffert, a librarian at the New York Public Library has also had to increase the budget allocation for audio books in his library to meet the increasing demand. (Shradhha Sharma/CNS)

Fifteen years ago, Scott Jackson, 48, got tired of hearing music on his car radio during his 45-minute commute to work as a sales executive. So he decided to switch to something more “self-enhancing and enriching.” That something turned out to be self-help books on tape.

Later, when he got a traveling salesman job that required driving all day long, Jackson sampled other types of books, including novels and science fiction.

“I first found out about audio books at the local library,” said Jackson, a resident of North Glenn, Colo. “I tried them and was hooked.”

As libraries contend with budget cuts and competition from the Internet, library-goers are reading less and listening and watching more. They are turning to audiobooks and DVDs instead of reading the actual printed volumes on which these electronic versions are based.

“Right now, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ DVD has more than 1,100 reserves on our citywide system,” said William Suffert, supervising librarian at the East 96th Street branch of the New York Public Library.

Meanwhile, a copy of Lauren Weisberger's best-selling novel on which the movie was based sat untouched on the shelf.

A report by the American Libraries Association shows that in 2003, the last year for which figures are available, libraries bought 18 percent more audio and video materials than they had the previous year. Book purchases increased during the same time by only 2 percent.

Suffert, who has been at the 96th Street library for more than a decade, said his branch’s nonprint budget, which includes audiobooks, had more than doubled over the past seven years to nearly $15,000 this year.

“That is not to say that people are not reading books anymore," Suffert said. "They are, but many prefer listening to them.”

Librarians elsewhere are noticing the same trend. “Audiobooks, whether they are on tape, CD or MP3, are very popular,” said Jim Burns, 61, of the Jacksonville Public Library in Florida. Burns, who is in charge of the adult section of the library, added that a greater percentage of people were checking out recorded materials than books.

“Perhaps that is also because people are buying more books, which is really quite ridiculous given the prices of books these days,” he said.

Jackson, the tape-listening commuter, not only checks out audiobooks from the library, he also buys them online.

“I retain much more if I listen rather than read," he said. "Also, I can multitask at the same time.” Another plus for Jackson is hearing the author read the book himself.

Recently, Jackson switched on Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower Series” on audio. “Boy, it took on a whole life of its own. That one struck me,” he said.

Jackson believes that an audiobook gives the listener a better sense of how the writer wanted it to sound. He said he had nearly 400 hours of books on his iPod.

Another audio fan is Emy Mendoza, 45, a student of urban planning at San Jose State University. She discovered audiobooks two years ago when faced with a daily commute to school of up to 90 minutes.

“I just wanted to listen to something more interesting than just music,” said Mendoza, who mostly prefers fiction on her car stereo. She recently finished listening to Marylinne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Gilead."

The auditory approach appeals to children as well. Amy Campbell, 13, from San Diego, was ecstatic when she found another way to satisfy her appetite for anything "Harry Potter."

“I had seen all the movies, read the books and then on my last birthday my Aunt Martha gifted me a complete audio set of ‘The Harry Potter Collection,’” the seventh grader said.

“Now I listen to them whenever I want,” said Amy, who was looking forward to acquiring both a hard copy and the audio version of the final Harry Potter book, which will be released in July.

Then there are youngsters who prefer audiobooks because they don’t have the inclination to read.

“Audiobooks work really well for children who are reluctant readers,” said Lynda Ackerson, 56, the library services manager at the Oregon Public Library.

That said, audiobooks are most popular with adults. “It’s mostly people who commute to work, and we always get more requests for books on tape rather than CDs, probably because the older cars still have tape players,” Ackerson said.

Among them is Jackson. He would have thought twice before thumbing through the fat volume of “The Secret,” a self-help book by Rhonda Byrne. But all he has to do now is sit down and listen to the four hours on CD, he said.

“When I was reading books, I barely managed to read three to five a year. Now I listen to around a 100 a year,” he said.