In the Digital Age, What Becomes of the Library?

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Nashville’s Main Public Library, located in a stately building in the heart of downtown, has a children’s section filled with comfortable sitting areas, oversized art, and a state-of-the-art theater for puppet shows and interactive story time. On a recent afternoon, children of varying ages were sitting or lying on the carpet, reading alongside rows of books lined on two-tiered shelves perfectly sized for little hands. Two grade-school children sat at a row of computers, playing a learning game, while parents and caregivers checked out books via computer. A line of parents and children waited to speak with one of the two librarians on duty. Something about the scene seemed touchingly retrograde: minus the computers and modern furniture, this could have easily been a library scene from 1980 or 2013.

That timeless feeling, said library director Kent Oliver, is because reading, regardless of format, continues to be important. “I think most parents understand that reading is the basis of success in life, and they know that libraries are about literacy and reading, regardless of the form the public library comes in,” he said. “One of our core values here is [cultivating] the love of reading. Parents get that, and the associated programs that go on only support that and teach that.”

A recent Pew Internet study on parents, reading and libraries supports Oliver’s sentiment, showing the library’s traditional purpose - providing free reading material - is also its most popular: the main reason most parents (87 percent) go to libraries is to get books for their kids.

But will that be changing? While no one would disagree that libraries should promote literacy, it’s hard to deny that the tech revolution is changing both how people consume books and the ways libraries present their offerings to parents and children: in some libraries, a student can download an ebook online, use a phone app to locate reference material, make stuff in designated “maker spaces,”  take DIY classes, or have a meeting at a community multi-use space. The Nashville library is currently using a MacArthur grant to create a Learning Lab where teens will be able to record music, write stories and more - a free space filled with equipment, as Oliver put it, “to create content, not just consume it.”

In a related Pew study on libraries and the Internet, one librarian told researchers, “I believe public libraries should move away from being ‘houses of knowledge’ and move more towards being ‘houses of access.’ This is what the public is asking for and we are here to serve them.” Beyond the use of technology, many librarians think in terms of access and information being closely linked, and believe that libraries still have a responsibility to both.

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For libraries right now, it’s not an either/or situation when it comes to information and access, said school librarian Kate Hewitt of the Far Brook School in Short Hills, New Jersey. “I try to make my library the hub of learning, collaboration, of community, of diversity, of innovation.” she said, “Libraries must evolve to meet the needs of their patrons or students, but they are also ‘conservative’ in the original sense of the word -- they conserve the knowledge our culture has amassed over time.”

Hewitt strives to bring print materials and digital technology together so her students can get the best of both worlds. She cites the example of the recent transition she made in moving most of the reference section to online databases. Online encyclopedias are “much more nimble and up-to-date” than print, and online entries are loaded with hyperlinks that become a gateway to other authoritative sources. A reference area becomes much richer using digital tools, she said, “but when it comes to picture books for younger readers, I would much rather have kids looking at traditional print books than apps."

For many households, the access and the information libraries offer have been interdependent long before the digital age, Kent Oliver said; without the free access the library provides, many cannot get the information they need. “I think there’s a real inaccuracy in what people think about our society, that everybody has a computer and everybody can afford to buy books, and that’s certainly not the case.”

[RELATED: The Public Library, Completely Re-Imagined]

While libraries might warehouse the information in formats both print and digital, they are not the keepers of the information, said Tiffany Verzani, Youth and Young Adult Services Manager at the Hinsdale Public Library in Hinsdale, Illinois. Much like the Internet itself, the information wants to be untethered. While her library, located in suburban Chicago, offers print and digital materials, music, DVDs, and more, she believes the library experience strives to be “self-guided exploration.” Even though her library has added tech features, like self-check and placing holds and paying fines online, she emphasizes the importance of teaching self-sufficiency to users. “We help people become more self-sufficient and the library becomes more flexible and can more quickly adapt to patron needs and wants.”

WHAT'S THE FUTURE OF THE LIBRARY?

When looking to the future, what else can libraries do besides provide access to learning and information, whether digitally or in print? One of the library’s most unique -- and analog -- features is the librarian, an expert who will help research topics or find answers for free.

“We are about helping people,” Oliver said. “One of the things I like to say is that we are one of the only institutions in our society that helps one person at a time. We are not satisfied until they’ve had their needs met.” While a majority of parents in the Pew study said they would likely use an online research service (“ask a librarian”), administrators are quick to point out that real librarians not only find the answers, but teach patrons how to find answers for themselves -- a "teach a man to fish" method that works whether it’s digital, print, or do-it-yourself. “The public librarian acts as a guide to help the individual find resources,” said Youth Services Librarian and blogger Louise Capizzo of Scarborough, Maine. “For example, a person comes in asking for very specific medical information. We can find the answer to their query by teaching them how to use online databases.”

As for virtual librarians, Capizzo suggests that what a real librarian does is more useful. “Would you ask, ‘What makes teachers so vital to schools?’” she asked. “Librarians are committed to promoting lifelong learning in order to create a community of well-informed individuals. Librarians are catalysts to enlightenment for their communities.”

How and when libraries move into the future is largely determined by budget and local politics, and make figuring out what’s next for libraries complex and murky. For many, the wish list included not the latest tech gadgets or maker spaces, but longer hours and more staff. When asked what the Nashville library was going to do with a small increase in budget spending, Oliver smiled. “We’re very excited that the mayor has given us the money to now be open on Mondays, a day which we’ve always been closed,” he said.

Verzani, who mentioned that each state has its own rules about how libraries are funded, said that for many cities, library services may be cut when money is needed for other things. “I do think the library of the future looks a lot like many libraries out there, but many libraries suffer from the digital divide and suffer economically and feel like they are being left behind,” she said. “Sadly, there are many libraries that do not have an IT person on staff and it's harder to update, maintain computers or create a dynamic website.”

THE MAGIC OF A LIBRARY

The reality of what libraries will become seems to be more complex than just incorporating e-books, apps, and creative use of space, most especially because of the unique interaction that takes place between the users, the librarians and the materials in the physical space of the library building -- something New York City parent Melissa Casey Jose calls, simply, magic.

“I think there's something so magical about being literally surrounded by books, able to browse and wander and discover independently. I love the community of it; we are literally borrowing/sharing these books, and the librarians are excited to help you discover and learn.”

[RELATED: Books and Bandsaws, The Future of Libraries]

Gretchen Bolen of Columbia, South Carolina, said that, like many parents in the Pew study, the library is very important to her and her family. Local librarians encourage her family to check out the maximum number of books per month: 60. And while Bolen and her kids enjoy the story hour, the puppet shows, and the art, she most enjoys what her library represents: “The library is a symbol of opportunity for us. Our library provides lots of free activities and classes. There are thousands of books we could never buy. We are a working class family and the library also provides us with cultural experiences we couldn't afford to pay for. We see rich people and homeless people in our library. It truly is a melting pot of folks. A little slice of Americana. I don't think there is another place like our library in town. It really is one of my family's favorite places to visit.”

As libraries hurtle toward the future, moving books and services online, many strive to provide services that are relevant, but the desire to come together with like-minded individuals, searching for knowledge and information, stays the same. And if your library has been slow to move into the digital age? Capizzo suggests asking for it. “Ask yourself what you want to see in your library. Talk to your librarian. Then, advocate for those changes. You are to blame if your library doesn’t have what you want.”

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When asked about the future, Capizzo said, “We have no way of knowing, but we are prepared to move forward because we will be listening to what our community wants.”

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