Public Library 2.0
Forget stereotypes about dusty piles of books. Today’s tech-savvy libraries are staying relevant in the digital age.
We tipped into the Digital Age around the year 2000, when the Internet changed from a static information platform into the interactive, Google-dominated Web 2.0 we know today.
The Digital Age (aka the Information Age) has put a staggering amount of information at our fingertips, literally. According to a Google search, there are 3.5 billion Google searches a day. This number has been steadily rising from about 10,000 a day in 2000.
Because of the information-on-demand nature of Google and the Internet, some people started to proclaim, “The library is dead!” As a columnist for the technology news blog TechCrunch wrote, “The internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books.”(1)
But has it, really?
People have been saying things like this for more than 100 years. Thomas Edison was a big believer in a new technology of his time: the motion picture. His enthusiasm about its possibilities even led him to declare in 1913, “Books will soon be obsolete in public schools.”(2) (Spoiler alert: Edison was wrong.)
Non-library users tend to have an outdated mental image of libraries as dark places stacked with dusty scrolls and leather-bound books, like the library at Castle Black in Game of Thrones. These folks are usually the ones to herald the death of the library. Even the author of the TechCrunch blog admits, “It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library.” To that I say, “Well, sir, maybe you shouldn’t speak with ‘authority’ on a subject about which you know nothing.”
That’s the problem with relying on the Internet as the only warehouse of knowledge. There’s a ton of information to be found online, but it’s not all fact. A lot of it is uninformed opinion posing as fact.
The truth is our public libraries are more important than ever. Behind the scenes they’ve been evolving with the times. But, as Pamela Westby, director of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire says, “Libraries have never been very good at marketing themselves.”
A Pew Research Center report states “90 percent of U.S. public libraries offer e-book lending, but 38 percent of Americans either don’t know or don’t think their local branch does so.”(3)
The number of digital downloads has been steadily increasing at the Eau Claire library. Between 2014 and 2016 e-book and audiobook downloads increased 35.7 percent, music downloads increased 32.5 percent, and music streaming increased 2.1 percent.
The Access Video service available at the Eau Claire library allows you to stream thousands of movies to your device. Information about creating apps, 3D printing, computer animation, creating podcasts, and more is also available through the video instructional service Lynda.com.
With a library card and an Internet connection, you don’t even need to leave your house to benefit from the free digital materials offered by the library.
But what if you’re part of the 27 percent of households that don’t have Internet at home? It’s hard to get information from Google if you can’t access Google in the first place.
DIGITAL INCLUSION AND LITERACY
As the wealth gap widens, libraries work hard to “close the digital gap between the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots,’ ” Westby says. This is also known as creating digital inclusion, or digital equity. Libraries in the Chippewa Valley and across the country provide access to computers, printers, the Internet, online career resources, online GED classes, small-business classes, and more.
The Eau Claire library and others offer iPads for check-out. The Menomonie Public Library and the Eau Claire library offer Wi-Fi hotspots for check-out so patrons can have Internet access for a short time.
By embracing technology libraries are able to help people adjust to the Digital Age and to become digitally literate. “Digital literacy means having a basic understanding of how to navigate the Web and use various online resources,” Westby explains. “Learning how to complete an online job application, create your own email account, upload a document or scan a photo are examples of digital literacy competencies. Library staff helps people with digital information needs every day, from learning how to use various mobile devices to knowing how to print a resume. The library empowers people to make their own decisions and to succeed.”
To that end, the Altoona Public Library offers a free, 30-minute, one-on-one tech appointment for cardholders to help them get familiar with a new iPad, mobile phone, or laptop, and learn how to download books and music from the library’s collection. Eau Claire’s library offers Tech Tuesdays and Tame Your Tech appointments and drop-in help.
In addition to digital literacy, the Eau Claire library offers online databases and reference materials to help improve medical and health, financial, automotive, and legal literacy. The Chippewa Falls Public Library offers a free legal clinic once a month and tax help every year.
And new this summer, appearing at events around Eau Claire and Chippewa, is the Eau Claire library BookBike: a bicycle pulling a very small public library, complete with a Wi-Fi hot spot. You can sign up for a library card and check out a book right at the bike, access the online catalog, get help and advice about apps and downloads, and more – all at no cost. (See the Eau Claire library’s website for the schedule.)
Libraries ensure information is available to everyone, not reserved for the elite few who can afford it. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey about libraries in the United States tells us that 65 percent of all respondents 16 and older say closing their local public library would have a major impact on their communities. Of those living in homes with annual incomes of $30,000 or less, 37 percent say the possibility of closing their local public library would have a major impact on them and their families.(4)
This is true not just for adults, but for children of lower income families as well. As technology becomes integrated into the classroom, more activities and homework require a computer and/or Internet research. Children without computer or Internet access can quickly fall behind.
And once children start to fall behind in school, they can suffer from problems ranging from low self-esteem to poverty.
Children growing up in the Digital Age are growing up behind the screen and online. Parents need to know how to monitor and use technology to ensure it has the best possible impact on their children’s lives.
Parents worry about exposing children to inappropriate content, keeping them entertained without rotting their brains, and helping kids navigate technology that they, the parent, may not feel comfortable with.
In addition to story time and reading programs, libraries are constantly working to help parents weave technology together with traditional forms of learning. At the Eau Claire library, the library staff and the e-Parenting program offer pediatric guidelines and vetted recommendations about suitable apps for different age groups, how much screen time is too much, using a computer with your child, and other tech questions. Parents can check out an early literacy iPad loaded with age-appropriate education apps so they can test the technological waters.
In addition to digital education, the library knows the value of early literacy and help parents and caregivers help their children succeed.
A 2013 study into children’s reading ability by third grade found “children with the lowest reading scores account for 33 percent of all students, yet they account for 63 percent of all children who do not graduate from high school.”(5)
One-sixth of children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers. And the rates are highest for the below-basic readers: 23 percent of these children drop out or fail to finish high school on time, compared with 9 percent of children with basic reading skills and 4 percent of proficient readers.(6)
Parents and caregivers establish a love of reading in kids essentially at birth, if not before. Library programs such as Books for Babies, 1,000 Books before Kindergarten, and Give a Kid a Book help them do just that.
LIFESAVERS FOR TEENS … AND PARENTS
“We get a lot of questions from parents about things like positive teen relationships, safe dating, puberty and sexuality,” says Sam Carpenter, a member of the Eau Claire library’s Youth Services staff. “Sometimes from teens too, but mostly from the parents.”
While books are no substitute for engaging with a child, they can help parents bridge the awkwardness of such subjects. And, they’re much better tools than what teens might stumble across while Googling these ideas. These books and those about overcoming bullying, creating self-confidence, and being comfortable in their own skin can teach teens how to be themselves while making the transition to adulthood.
Parents can also use the library as leverage to get their kids to read more, since reading is so important to success. One day at the library I saw a girl sitting next to a stack of books, gazing at her phone. It turns out 13-year-old Kiki Shea wanted an iPhone, so her parents struck a deal with her: Read 100 books and we’ll buy you a phone.
It took her “months” to complete the challenge, but it was worth it. “I didn’t really like reading at first,” Kiki says of the challenge, “but now I do.”
If she had to buy 100 books, the cost would have been an obstacle to her success, even if she bought them used at $1 a book. Fortunately, the library was there with thousands of books that could spark her imagination, for free.
When I ask Kiki what she thinks of the idea that the Digital Age makes libraries obsolete, she says, “It’s good to have the Internet, but it’s better to have books.”
SO MUCH MORE THAN INFORMATION
There’s a certain vibe in a library that you don’t get sitting alone in front of a screen. A library is a place of creativity and inspiration, of community and connection. Children and adults alike can wander the open stacks and discover new things, opening their minds to new ideas that can change the world.
A library is a community center. The Youth Services staff helps thousands of parents with questions such as, “My eight-year-old wants to read Harry Potter. Is that content too scary for someone that age?” and “What app can you recommend for my 10-year-old?”
But librarians aren’t the only ones answering these questions. Moms and dads talk to other parents about what their children are reading or about a new app they found that works well at teaching numbers, or maybe they just chat while their kids become socialized in the Play and Learn area.
Social isolation is the price we as a society pay for the wonders of the Digital Age. Community bonds grow weaker as more geographically scattered connections are made online. This is captured perfectly by a panel of the comic strip Bizarro showing a funeral with four people in attendance. One says to another, “He had over 2,000 Facebook friends. I was expecting a bigger turnout.”
Libraries offer community connection disguised as education. Events for teens such as “Make Your Own Solar Oven,” the Library Fantasy Football League and presentations for adults, and the Summer Cinema and Camp-Read-Away summer reading programs for the whole family bring the Chippewa Valley together in ways that Google does not.
The library is far from dead. It just needs its citizens to keep it healthy. So see what’s shaking at your library! You might be surprised by what you find.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR LOCAL PUBLIC LIBRARY
Altoona Public Library
1303 Lynn Ave., (715) 839-5029
Chippewa Falls Public Library
105 W. Central St., (715) 723-1146
Durand Community Library
604 Seventh Ave. E., (715) 672-8730
Elk Mound Community Library
E101 Menomonie St., (715) 917-1070
L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library (Eau Claire)
400 Eau Claire St., (715) 839-5004
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Menomonie Public Library
600 Wolske Bay Road, 715-232-2164