I was delighted to find that one of the local libraries I use has at last got its catalogue on the Internet. (There’s a misplaced apostrophe in its banner but I’m hoping that is the responsibility of an IT person, rather than the library’s staff!) The library itself is small and serves an equally small town of around 2,000 people. The other library service I use is much bigger, with five branches and around 25,000 potential users. Their catalogue has been online for a number of years.

Both sets of libraries are excellent and I find their services invaluable. If I can’t find a particular book, then I can order it through inter-library loan and get it pretty quickly. Now that both catalogues are online I can easily check from home whether a particular book is in the library and physically on the shelf. Which is a fantastic thing to be able to do, don’t you think? A far cry from the old days of card-catalogues and having to visit the library to find out such things.

Today I made use of this new facility to check on the availability of two books: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Both books have had a fair bit of hype about them recently and eventually the hype filters through to me. In the larger library service, there’s a 19-day wait for the Gilbert book and an even longer one for the Larsson one (44 days). In the small library both books are showing as ‘available’ and I’ll be there when it opens tomorrow to get my hands on them. Hooray for tiny library services!

I only really heard about Eat, Pray, Love today, when I arrived, through a winding and distraction-strewn route at Shannon Rigney Keane’s blog and her post Olé to You Nonetheless, which introduces Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creative genius. It’s a great talk and I’m really glad to have found out about it. What a wonderfully funny and intelligent woman Elizabeth Gilbert is. I wouldn’t normally have picked up a book with the word ‘pray’ in the title, but having heard Elizabeth’s talk, I figured that it wasn’t going to be the sort of book I assumed it would be. (Forget covers, there’s a whole lesson here about not judging a book by its title, too.)

Anyway, the point I think I’m trying to make here, very slowly, is that within a few short minutes I went from thinking ‘I might enjoy that book’ to finding out that the library had it on the shelf. Tomorrow (unless I’m very unlucky and someone checks it out in the next hour) I’ll have the book in my hand. That is very close to instant gratification, I would say. And yet one of the arguments that people seem to be making about public libraries is that we don’t need them because we can get everything instantly from the Internet. And sure enough, I could download a copy of the Larsson book from Kobobooks.com for $7.99 and the Gilbert one for $10.49.

$18.48 for two digital files (which will be read just once) RIGHT NOW. Or $0 for two solid volumes tomorrow morning (I will be in the town anyway, so there is no additional cost for fuel to get there). For me, it’s an easy choice. I am always happy to pay for a book that I know will be read more than once and which I can see on my shelf (cookery and gardening books fall into this category) but for everything else (all my ephemeral reading), the library (or a free ebook) will win nearly every time. And in the future, as more people get ereaders and libraries get access to ebooks for their patrons, it will be possible to get to that content even more quickly. Next time you want a book, investigate the library option as well as the online ordering one. You might be pleasantly surprised by how quickly (and reasonably) you can get what you’re looking for.

Libraries are a fabulous resource and are increasingly under threat of cuts or closure. Use them or lose them.