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Libraries reinvent themselves as they struggle to remain relevant in the digital age

They're preparing for a future in which materials can be checked out and read from a home computer, smart phone or e-reader.

November 12, 2010|By David Sarno, Los Angeles Times
  • Pam Sandlian-Smith, director of the Rangeview, Colo., Library District, says, "It's very common for people to say, 'Why do I need a library when I've got a computer?' We have to reframe what the library means to the community."
Pam Sandlian-Smith, director of the Rangeview, Colo., Library District,… (David Sarno / Los Angeles…)

Kathy DeGrego's T-shirt lets you know right away she isn't an old-school librarian.

"Shhh," it says, "is a four-letter word."

That spirit of bookish defiance has guided the makeover of the suburban Denver library system where DeGrego works. Reference desks and study carrels have been replaced by rooms where kids can play Guitar Hero. Overdue book fines have been eliminated, and the arcane Dewey Decimal System has been scrapped in favor of bookstore-like sections organized by topic.

"It's very common for people to say, 'Why do I need a library when I've got a computer?' " said Pam Sandlian-Smith, director of the seven-branch Rangeview, Colo., Library District. "We have to reframe what the library means to the community."

In the struggle to stay relevant — and ultimately to stay open — libraries are reinventing themselves in ways unimaginable even a few years ago, preparing for a future in which most materials can be checked and read from a home computer, smart phone or electronic reading device.

University and public libraries are rushing to push as much material as they can onto the Web, so patrons can peruse genealogical records, historical maps or rare volumes without leaving home.

Many public libraries are also becoming digital activity centers, where in addition to books visitors can find game rooms, computer clusters or Internet cafes. Collections of DVDs have swelled, as has the number of high-definition televisions.

Some traditional librarians worry that experiments aimed at making libraries more accessible could dumb them down.

"If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don't pretend it has anything to do with libraries," said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. "The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, 'Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky' — it seems ludicrous to me."

Others argue that reinvention is a matter of survival in an age when Google Inc. has made the reference desk almost obsolete and printed books are beginning to look more like antique collectibles.

The number of books checked out by the average public library user dropped nearly 6% between 1997 and 2007, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Book checkouts at the New York Public Library alone plunged by 1 million volumes in the most recent fiscal year.

At the 540,000-square-foot Central Library in downtown Los Angeles — the largest public research library west of the Mississippi — few visitors wander the main floors where most of the building's 2 million books are kept. At wooden reading tables, only a handful of people sit paging through newspapers.

But down the escalator it's a different story. The 70-seat computer center is often packed as patrons read news, watch YouTube videos and scour the Web for jobs.

In the last fiscal year, the library system's patrons checked out 102,000 e-books, more than twice as many as in the previous year. The number is on track to nearly double again in 2010.

Like regular books, e-books can be borrowed for a few weeks. Then the book deletes itself from the borrower's computer, e-reader or mobile phone.

E-book collections at U.S. libraries grew nearly 60% between 2005 and 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During the same period libraries' print collections grew less than 1%, though ink-on-paper works still make up 98% of U.S. libraries' holdings.

Joan Frye Williams, a library consultant and futurist, believes that the underlying purpose of libraries will not change, even if bookshelves disappear.

"Saying that there's a challenge to libraries because books are changing would be like saying there's a challenge to family dinner because plates are changing," she said.

Digital technology is also allowing libraries to digitize large swaths of their collections, creating a virtual library accessible from any computer.

Libraries are leading the effort to scan centuries' worth of rare, unique and fragile materials as varied as medieval religious manuscripts and antique phone books — whatever they've been keeping in the basement.

Libraries are reluctant to digitize new bestsellers and other books still in copyright, or roughly anything published after 1923. But there remains a vast trove of classic books, government documents, historical papers and other material not covered by copyright that libraries can scan without fear of litigation. Many of these digital books and documents can be searched, read and even downloaded free.

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