By Stacey Ross
I happened upon a robust conversation about how libraries, as we know them, are evolving. Similar to how brick-and-mortar book stores have been closing down due to competition from online retailers like Amazon, maybe public libraries, one person suggested, might end up going the same route. Others piped in, remarking that the means we use today to access other services and resources will inevitably have a long term impact on libraries.
While the gradual reinvention of the public library will not eliminate physical books entirely, there is a clear trend towards incorporating more technology in the support of accessible literature. Libraries are becoming multi-media meeting places rather than merely clearing houses for lending books.
In a study released last year, the Pew Internet & American Life Project asked Americans about how they use libraries and what they want to see changed. The study showed that despite the various ways we can now access reading material, people still very much value the physical library, particularly those who lack experience with new technology or don’t own the latest gadgets.
The study’s findings indicate how libraries are at a crossroads when it comes to satisfying traditional community needs and catering to the demands of the digital age:
- 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities.
- 76% say libraries are important to them and their families.
- 58 percent of people surveyed would be likely to checkout e-readers already loaded with books.
- 77% say free access to computers and the Internet is a “very important” service of libraries.
- 51% would take classes on how to use devices like the Kindle (Pew says this demonstrates “significant growth” from the prior year).
- 63% are interested in apps-based access to library materials and programs.
New practices are popping up, which are extensions of the traditional library services: Redbox-style lending machines or kiosks that allow people to check out books, movies or music without having to go into the library itself; Amazon-style book, audio and video recommendations based on patrons’ library behavior that encourage return visits; and – I get a kick out of this one – GPS-navigation apps that help patrons locate material inside library buildings. (Be sure not to text while “driving!”).
Of course if you are just looking for e-books, you may not need to visit the library at all. Google Books and iTunes are just two of the many resources for finding free e-books online.
As one librarian polled for the Pew study shared, “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.”
Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.