Eric Zorn writes:  

The Chicago Public Library refers to its new, very slick online reservation system as “Find It, Chicago!”  But I think of it as “Netbooks.”

Those who hold CPL cards (which can be obtained by those holding cards from cooperating suburban systems) can now log into their account page and, by searching through the vast system catalog, create what amounts to a queue of books they’d like to read, movies they’d like to watch or audio titles they’d like to listen to.

It’s a lot like Netflix– the DVD service — except it’s free and the items aren’t delivered right to the customer’s door. Instead, when they become available, users get an e-mail telling them to go pick them up at whichever branch library they’ve designated as most convenient for them.

Yes, it’s nice, but, um, people have been able to do this at other libraries for years (e.g. Oak Park).

In fairness, when it came to updating the CPL’s stunningly awful old Web site, which lacked functions that my semirural public library had via dialup like 15 years ago, they did a really nice job. According to Zorn, circulation immediately increased, unsurprisingly yet encouragingly.

I particularly like the Overdrive downloadable media section (PC only, just like Netflix streaming movies–there are certain advantages to being a unhip penny-pinching sheep like me). The selection is small but there’s enough quality lit to make it worthwhile, and it’s not just the expected classics; William Vollman’s National Book Award-winning Europe Central just became available.

Zorn and Mary Schmich suggest that using the library is a good way to economize, which is true, but I do want to take exception to Schmich’s advice to only buy paperbacks. If you really, really like books, and aren’t actually impoverished, at least buy a couple very good hardbacks a year (especially new fiction)–the profit margin on them is much higher, which sounds like a dumb reason to buy something, but it’s not like the industry is awash in insane profits. Sometimes it’s worth paying more for good things that you want to keep being good. Plus, the time spent in consumption vs. the price is still a better ratio than movies or live sports.

On the other hand, maybe buying hardbacks is supporting an outdated and inefficient business model that is dying to be rethought. Also, hardbacks suck for commuting (cf. Overdrive audio books, which can be downloaded to non-iPod mp3 players).