by Liz Daube
Thanks to the Comcast settlement fund, you may be able to download a free book to your iPod soon. With the support of the mayor’s office, the Jacksonville Public Library System recently asked the Comcast Advisory Committee to redirect $200,000 from the fund toward buying new materials for the library, including digital audio books.
“The point with the digital audio books is that we at the library always need to be keeping up to date with technology,” said Stacie Bucher, spokeswoman for the library. She added that libraries are important resources for people who can’t afford high-speed Internet access or a computer.
Digital audio books, however, are intended for library patrons with computer access. The digital books are much like books on tape — but they’re digital sound files instead of physical tapes. People need a computer in order to download and listen to the digital audio books, Bucher said.
If the library gets the $100,000 requested to invest in the digital audio books, patrons will be able to download the files at the library or at home by entering a personal identification number. Then, they can listen to the book on their computer, put the file on an MP3 player or burn it to a CD.
Bucher said each file is encrypted, so an audio book on a computer or MP3 player simply becomes unusable when the due date arrives. For CD users, Bucher said everyone who downloads has to sign an agreement stating that they won’t sell copies. Like many other library services, Bucher said, the user agreement is based on trust.
“Online materials aren’t lost,” said Bucher. “Most people are honest, and they replace or pay for it if they lose it (a book). But there’s a certain amount of loss every year.”
The Comcast settlement fund was established by an agreement with the City a few years ago. Comcast made a lump-sum payment to the City in exchange for the City’s approval of a merger between Comcast and AT&T Broadband. In addition, the settlement requires Comcast to give $150,000 a year to local nonprofit organizations for a specified length of time.
A five-member community panel, including two members appointed by the mayor, two by Comcast and one by City Council, distributes the funds. The first year’s fund money was never disbursed, so $300,000 became available this year. $100,000 has already been given to other library systems in Florida. The remaining $200,000 is slated for the City’s libraries.
The mayor’s office originally asked for the $200,000 to go toward the Bookmobile, which quit operating in October due to budget cuts. The City Council’s Economic, Community and International Development Committee deferred the appropriations ordinance back to the mayor’s office.
“We didn’t agree with the use of the funds,” said Council member Art Graham, who chairs the ECID committee. “If I have to choose between having the Bookmobile and keeping the library open on Sunday, I’ll keep the library open on Sunday.”
Graham said that, at the time, many of the library branches didn’t have money in their budgets to stay open on Sundays. Since that time, additional Sunday hours were added at several branches.
Council auditor Kirk Sherman said the ECID committee thought the Bookmobile should be funded by taxes or another constant source of revenue, not the Comcast fund.
“You shouldn’t be using one-time pieces of money on recurring expenditures,” said Sherman.
Bucher said there are no current plans for reinstating the Bookmobile route. She added that the Bookmobile wasn’t receiving much demand anymore.
“When we took a look at our budget last year, we had to make some decisions about what was used the most,” said Bucher. “Because of the Better Jacksonville Plan, we built branches in all the places the Bookmobile was going.”
The Comcast Settlement Community Panel will review the new funds request March 28, according to mayor’s office spokeswoman Misty Skipper. If approved, it will likely go back to the ECID Committee.