For those still wary of eReaders, Free Library lends a hand

In a Nook class at the Free Library, Loren Groenendaal answers Barbara Williams (right). The Central Library also offers individual sessions for seniors. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
In a Nook class at the Free Library, Loren Groenendaal answers Barbara Williams (right). The Central Library also offers individual sessions for seniors. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer) (In a Nook class at the Free Library)
Posted: March 19, 2012

Sharon Howard recalls being too intimidated years ago to use the computer until a friend forced her onto the Internet. And as recently as about two months ago, she was afraid to use an eReader.

"I'd like someone to show me how to use this," she thought.

But after taking part in the Philadelphia Free Library's pilot eReader program, Howard, 61, owns an Amazon Kindle. One of her favorite eBooks so far? Bill Bryson's African Diary.

The library has been offering eBooks for years, according to Jennifer Wright, assistant chief in the Materials Management Division at the Central Library. But lending eReaders, and holding training programs for senior citizens, dates to late November.

Wright noted there was a definite need for a training program for seniors.

"More than half of the people asking how to use eBooks and gadgets were over 50," she said.

"We didn't want a digital divide."

She added that some titles appear only as eBooks, such as various Harlequin novels.

Dorothy Iams, another patron who took part in the program, believes it was geared toward older people because "we're less likely to spill beer on [the electronics]." Iams also had a positive experience with the program and has read eBooks such as The Bonesetter's Daughter. .

The Free Library was the first large urban public library system in the United States to lend electronic gadgets to patrons, said Lee Fishman, assistant chief at the Central Library.

But Philadelphia isn't the only system to have such a training program.

"I think it's becoming more common," said Marcia Warner, spokeswoman for the 11,000-member national Public Library Association. She estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of libraries around the country are adopting or have adopted similar initiatives. In two years, these initiatives will be the norm, she said.

The eReader training programs were an integral part of the PLA National Conference's agenda last week in Philadelphia.

Warner said once libraries realize people won't steal or abuse the system, they're quicker to adopt such programs.

She said urban systems tend to have larger staffs and the resources for more cutting-edge programs.

The Philadelphia Central Library offers seniors one-on-one meetings and training sessions. Trainer Loren Groenendaal teaches patrons the basics of using the Nook, such as turning it on and off, changing the font size, and turning pages. She also teaches them about the menus and downloading books.

"They adapt pretty quickly," she said of her students. So far, more than 130 have been through the course. Many are in their 80s; one was 96. The main issues she faces in teaching seniors about the eReader have to do with semantics - the difference between downloading and opening, for instance - and teaching them how to use a touch screen.

Many libraries also have "petting zoos," in which patrons are introduced to four or five different eReaders.

Groenendaal said that although the program instructs seniors in using Nooks, she also introduces them to the Kindle and iPad.

The program is free and open to patrons over 50 with library cards in good standing.

But in contrast to borrowing books, seniors who take out Nooks need to sign a borrowing agreement and have their ages and addresses checked against their ID. They also aren't allowed to renew the Nooks; if the eReaders are available, the seniors can check them in and out.

Each Nook comes preloaded with 25 books, including classics and New York Times best-sellers.

Fishman said the library advertised the program by sending fliers to all 50 branches and mailings to 30 senior centers. The library also issued a news release and wrote about the program on its website and blog.

The project was funded with a federal Library Services and Technology Act grant of $25,000.

The Nooks have circulated more than 100 times, and many seniors have bought their own eReaders.

The library hopes to expand access to several of its other branches next month, including in Bustleton and Wynnefield.


Contact Laura Cofsky at 215-854-2771 or lcofsky@philly.com.

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