How Libraries Can Survive In The Digital Age

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Books as we know them are clearly in a state of flux. One in five Americans now read on e-readers or tablet computers, and most things that can be found in a book are little more than a click or touch away online. That trend has been the catalyst behind chain and independent bookstores closing at record pace. To avoid a similar fate, libraries across the country are trying to reinvent themselves and prove the digital revolution doesn’t mean the end of a book-lovers’ era.

“I’ve been hearing about how the Internet is killing libraries. It’s not true, it’s created other demands,” John Bertot, a library science professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and co-director for the Information Policy and Access Center, told ThinkProgress.

The reality is libraries are having a bit of an identity crisis. They’re no longer “just repositories of books and other media, but places where people can experiment and create,” Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association based in Chicago, told ThinkProgress.

Technology has, in many ways, helped keep libraries afloat. A Pew Research study released earlier this year found that people who use libraries are technophiles, relishing in mobile gadgets, e-readers and heavily Internet users. Ninety percent of highly engaged library goers, called information omnivores, are online daily, with 95 percent owning a cell phone or smartphone and nearly all of them using either e-readers or tablet computers, according to the study.

A fast-evolving digital world has created a dichotomy where there’s an increased opportunity to access troves of information but access isn’t guaranteed. That’s where libraries come in.

About 20 percent of the country doesn’t have Internet access at home, work or school, or on mobile devices, according to 2010 Census data. The approximately 60 million of Americans who don’t have this access are overwhelmingly minorities and elderly. “If you don’t have access to the technology and don’t have opportunity to practice, with regular instruction, you don’t know how to do important everyday things like analyze and research and find the best car,” Stripling said. Instead they grab the top three sites listed on Google or rely on recommendations from friends.

“If you happen to be fortunate enough to have access [to computers and other technologies], and know how use it, you have so much at your finger tips,” Bertot said. On the flip side, the skills you need to access that content are different with digital media versus print: “You’ve gone from basic literacy requirements to needing a whole host of other skills, devices to extract content and do research.”

Even though more people are online than ever before thanks to smartphones, that’s not the same thing as having access. There’s a wealth gap that impacts whether certain populations can even access not just new technologies, but adequately plugged-in libraries. Minorities disproportionately use mobile devices as a primary means to access the Internet. Only 62 percent of African Americans have a broadband Internet connection at home, according to a separate Pew survey.

But while barely over half of African-Americans and Hispanics own smartphones, they’re at least 13 percentage points more likely to use it to access the Internet over their white counterparts, Pew found in an Internet use survey in 2010. But you can’t do research on a smartphone or easily navigate a government website, Bertot said. And if you’re on an Apple device, websites that use Adobe Flash for graphics and video don’t work well.

“We know the country will be majority minority in 2020 and all of our communities are changing. We have to be sure that our librarians are diverse, so that those that those who work in the library reflect the community, Stripling said. Some libraries are in large immigrant communities, and many members might have come from countries that don’t have libraries. So “instead of expecting them to leave their comfort zone and come to the library but libraries have to go out in the community and open a dialogue,” she said.

To cope, libraries are looking to increase their presence through digital services such as an online “Ask A Librarian” function, mobile apps, or kiosks throughout the community that lend out books and movies. Libraries have also started beefing up their tech equipment. Many have installed 3-D printers, micropublishing equipment for book-binding, video equipment as part of makers’ centers where people can use equipment to jump start their own business or just create something fun. In Washington, D.C.’s landmark Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, visitors can use the digital commons to access pricey design software suites that could help a recent graduate or unemployed graphics artist tweak their portfolio.

The plethora of new technologies at local libraries also means librarians have to constantly go through training beyond what’s taught in library science college programs to keep up. “There’s a need for constant re-training because the information world continues to evolve and the technology itself continues to change,” Stripling said. “If we’re going to help members of the public use e-readers, we have to first [be able to buy] it and then learn to use them.”

Technology has shifted public libraries’ entire model from the “just-in-case” model, which was predicated on accumulating all this stuff — books, magazines, newspapers, scholarly publications — into a warehouse of information just in case you might need it. And librarians tried to link you to that information, Bertot explained. Now, “it’s a ‘just-in-time’ model; we don’t have to have a building full of items. Increasingly, [people] don’t have to come to the building,” and can access ‘the warehouse’ via the library website.

But if people don’t need to come into the library, why do they still need to exist? “The building is still really important in communities,” Bertot said. And he’s right.

People who don’t go to the library and have never been to one in their life believe they’re vital to their communities, Pew found in it’s library use report. Ninety percent of Americans older than age 16 say closing a library would have an impact on their community. Almost 70 percent of people who have never personally been to a library but know someone who has believe they’re essential in promoting literacy, reading and giving everyone a chance to succeed. Another 64 percent say libraries improve communities’ quality of life.

The key is transitioning libraries from a refuge of books stacked to the ceiling to an everything for everyone platform that’s there when government programs and other efforts fail. “Public libraries have a reputation of being nice to have but not essential to have. The reality is that we have to shift the argument.”

Part of the challenge is that “we’re terrible at selecting data and demonstrating our value,” Bertot said. “We’re not like the police department,” which can cite statistics that correlate a rise in murders and crime to the number of police on the street, he said. “We can’t say ‘for every librarian you cut, three kids don’t learn to read, we don’t have data like that.”

Libraries took a hit like everyone else during the recession, affected by dried up fund reservoirs from local and state governments grappling with shrinking budgets. “But even as the economy tanked, library use was up,” Bertot said. They functioned as bridges, connecting the public to the workforce, health care and, as an extension of the education system.

The unemployed turned to librarians for job counseling, with some using the space as an office. Others took their children to available programs like one teaching kids robotics. Libraries also held workshops to help people understand and sign up for the health exchanges brought on by the Affordable Care Act, Bertot said. In Baltimore, non-profit program Baltimarket partners with local libraries to help people without access to fresh, healthy foods order groceries online and offers cooking and nutrition classes so they can learn how to prepare meals.

Libraries have a history of being invisible gap-fillers, stepping up when schools or other programs can’t because of too few resources, even in natural disasters or other crises. In 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s libraries served as a refuge for citizens displaced by the storm, and let people use computers to contact relatives. They also put U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) forms on its website and coached residents through the application process. The same thing happened when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, destroying the New Jersey coastline.

It’s hard showing people how integral libraries are to the community and society as a whole. “We’re trying to be all things to all people because we don’t judge. We don’t want to serve one part of the population and not the other. But that’s hard to do when you go in front of budget committees,” Bertot said. To survive, however, they’ll have to capitalize on that.