Libraries may draw readers by e-mailing book chapters

Monday, April 5, 2004

ALBANY, Ga. -- Patrons of the Dougherty County Library get an e-mail each day featuring one or more chapters from a selected book.

These "five-minute reads" may persuade the readers to check the book out from the library or go to a bookstore and buy it. If nothing else, they can share their thoughts on the book with other readers on the library's Web site.

The library in this southwest Georgia city is one of thousands tapping into the Internet to serve not only its committed bookworms, but also those who just can't seem to find enough time to read. It recently joined 3,000 libraries around the country that offer online book clubs and send out book teasers by way of e-mail.

"I hope it gets people in the habit of pleasure reading," Jimmy Bass, manager of Dougherty County's Central Library, said. "These days, it's tough to find time to read. I work in a library and it's tough for me to find time."

Bass said he was impressed that 250 patrons signed up in the first two weeks of the service.

The online book teasers are a big hit with patrons of the public library in Pasadena, Calif. That library has been using them for 18 months, where they are referred to as "Chapter-a-Day," said the library's director Luis Herrera.

"It gives them an opportunity to know what's out there in the publishing world, to hook onto new titles," said Herrera, who is also president of the Public Library Association.

Libraries have always assisted readers in making book selections by maintaining best seller lists and giving advice on popular titles and authors. "This is another avenue for that ... online," Herrera said. "It's proven very successful."

Suzanne Beecher, a lifelong reader from Sarasota, Fla., began offering the book teasers in 2000. Some part-time employees of her family's software company were stay-at-home moms. Many said they didn't have time to shave their legs, much less read a book.

So on a whim, Beecher typed a chapter of a book and sent it to them in an e-mail. From their responses, she knew they were hooked.

"I realized if you could get business people and stay-at-home moms involved in a book, so that reading is on their short list, that's quite an accomplishment," she said.

Beecher founded DearReader.com to provide the service to libraries. She has since added a new service for businesses, featuring professional development books.

"I was looking for ways to make it easy for people to find the time to read again," she said. "There are so many things you can do. Reading has taken a back seat. It's kind of overwhelming to go into a bookstore or library. There isn't a lot of browsing time, unfortunately. The easiest way is to sample a book for yourself."

Readers join the online book club at their local library or through the libraries' Web sites. DearReader.com remains in the background, but Beecher's staff prepares the manuscripts and sends out the daily reads in 200,000 e-mails. Most of her employees are stay-at-home moms scattered across the country, working from their homes.

Book club members can join 11 different clubs, including mystery, romance, science fiction, inspiration, horror and teen. There's even a club that allows them to sample books before they are published. DearReader.com also works with local librarians in selecting books that their patrons are likely to want.

They only get a taste of the book, possibly the first two or three chapters. DearReader.com does not send out entire books.

Beecher said publishers welcome the exposure and gladly give her permission to use up to 23 pages.

Besides posting comments on library Web sites, readers can share their book views in an online forum maintained by DearReader.com. There are links to Amazon.com and Books-A-Million.com for those who want to purchase books, rather than borrow them from their libraries. Some library Web sites have links that allow readers to request the books.

"We tell people to read only what they enjoy reading," Beecher said. "If you don't like a book, just hit the delete key."

Book clubs are among many online services offered by a growing number of libraries around the country. Libraries are providing online databases featuring stories from leading newspapers and magazines and access to legal databases and top reference books. Some libraries provide online homework assistance for students, and The San Jose, Calif., Public Library recently announced a new online service that allows members to download electronic books.

Daniel L. Walters, executive director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District in Nevada, said more than a million people visited his library's Web site between July and January. Among its offerings are Web pages for youngsters and e-book downloads. More than 10,000 used the library's "Learn-a-test" service which helps patrons prepare for GED, SAT and other tests, he said.

"We're having more renewals online than we are in our libraries," said Walters, chairmen of the Public Library Association's technology-in-public-libraries committee.

Herrera said he believes there's a renewed interest in reading, despite the many distractions and hectic lifestyles. He said visitation to major urban public libraries has climbed 8 percent since 1999 and the nation's public libraries attracted about 1.2 billion people last year.

In the year following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, library visitations climbed 11 percent, he said.

"It's folks wanting to get back to basics," he said. "Reading is one of the pleasures. Libraries provide a variety of activities -- cultural, homework help and the internet. I think there's a resurgence of reading, which is very exciting."

Book clubs in general are an excellent way to promote reading, said Carol Brey-Casiano, president-elect of the American Library Association.

"The cool thing about DearReader.com is that you can share books with people you've never met, potentially around the world," Brey-Casiano, director of the public library in El Paso, Texas, said. "I think it enhances the experience when it's shared."


On the Net:

Delaware County Library: http://www.docolib.org/

DearReader.com: http://www.dearreader.com/

Pasadena Public Library: http://www.ci.pasadena.ca.us/library/

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