Byline: By Rhodri Clark Western Mail
Audio books that can be downloaded at home are set to take off - but could undermine the future of small libraries, it is feared.
Two Welsh counties now enable borrowers to download audio books free of charge at home, to play on their personal computers or MP3 players.
The innovation allows elderly people, rural dwellers and others to borrow audio books without having to travel to their local library.
But it could also hasten the demise of small community libraries.
Audio books account for significant borrowings from libraries, because local bookshops may stock few audio books or none at all.
If many borrowers switch to downloading, visits to vulnerable branch libraries could fall.
One expert warned yesterday that managers and librarians faced hard choices about sustaining small libraries or concentrating their limited resources on improving their biggest libraries.
Denbighshire County Council is one of the first in the UK to offer audio books online.
Registered library users enter their number on the library website and can choose up to 10 audio books at a time. They can listen to the books for three weeks, after which the file is disabled unless they renew.
Yesterday there were 434 titles available to Denbighshire residents. The facility is provided by a company called Netlibrary, which has thousands of audio books in various languages.
However, there were no Welsh-language titles available to Denbighshire borrowers yesterday.
Last year Monmouthshire library service launched downloadable audio books, with more than 400 titles on offer.
Libraries expert Geraint Evans, of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, said, 'It's a very welcome move because it extends the library beyond the four walls of the building.
'This can be very important for different types of client, for example those who are housebound. They might be the ideal customers for these audio books - they might have a disability which makes it impossible for them to access ordinary books.
'It's part of a wider theme that we see in public and academic libraries, that clients can access information from their computers at home.'
He said some centralisation of libraries had already happened. …