Ithaca, N.Y. — ​Where would you turn first to read an e-book version of, say, Fifty Shades of Grey: Kindle Unlimited, amazon.com’s new e-book subscription service — or the local public library?

​You won’t find the e-book version, or the bestselling trilogy that includes it, on Kindle Unlimited just yet. You will find it in the Finger Lakes Library System, which includes Tompkins County Public Library.

The Tompkins County Public Library. (Courtesy of Brian Crandall at Ithacating)

​A Wall Street Journal columnist found a cool way to test how well old-school, brick-and-mortar libraries stack up in the digital-reading age. Quite well so far, it turns out.

​Geoffrey A. Fowler, personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, started with a few best-seller lists and Stephen King’s favorite books to compare e-availability at two public libraries — San Francisco and Columbia, S.C. — with that on Kindle Unlimited, Oyster and Scribd.

​What he found was that generally the free libraries, especially the larger system in San Francisco, had far more availability than the subscription services.

​The Voice decided to give the idea a quick test in Ithaca. This is not nearly as extensive as what Fowler did and, with apologies to him and his employer, we used The New York Times best-seller lists to compare.

​You can get a 30-day free trial with Kindle Unlimited at amazon and do a few searches of your own, and you can go to the local library site, tcpl.org. On the local site, you can expand the search to include the entire Finger Lakes Library System.

​TCPL has about 4,000 to 5,000 e-books, according to one of the librarians, Debbie Collier. Each genre of books has a librarian to advocate for it, she said. So if the librarian responsible for social sciences sees a new release that will likely be popular, she will try to obtain it in book, audio and e-book forms. As always, budget imposes limits on the list.

​So how does the FLLS do compared with Kindle Unlimited?

​One quick scan, a far-from-comprehensive review, compares the two against the top-five titles on the most recent Times lists for best-sellers in e-book fiction and non-fiction.

​Here are the results:


​Three out of five and two out of five, compared with none out of five and none out of five, is not bad for the public library.

​As Fowler says, why pay a subscription fee if you can find them for free?

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.