Libraries struggle to remain relevant in a digital world

by Laura Edghill
Posted 4/12/16, 01:30 pm

Local libraries offer more than ever before, expanding far beyond books to provide community resources often available in few other places. But according to a new survey, efforts to broaden library appeal are falling short.

According to a recently released Pew Research Center report, 90 percent of libraries offer digital books, 62 percent offer online job and career-related resources, and 35 percent offer GED or high school equivalency certifications. But when asked about these services, the 2,700 adults surveyed consistently estimated lower instances of availability in every category. While 90 percent of libraries offer digital books, for instance, only 62 percent of the respondents thought they could check out e-books from their local branch. 

“It’s been a perpetual challenge,” said suburban Detroit library director Larry Neal. “I think it’s one of the largest challenges libraries have—that perception of ‘what does the library have to offer?’”

Those offerings are extensive and innovative, Neal said. They incorporate traditional services, such as large print and audio resources, but also now frequently include tutoring, integrated support and borrowing networks with local schools, free streaming and downloadable music and video content, 3-D printing services, as well as an ever-expanding catalog of digital books and magazines.

Like many other publicly funded institutions, a combination of declining revenue streams and swelling demand for a more diverse array of resources has forced libraries to prove their relevance. 

Many public libraries have launched into the modern era, staking claim to the expanding array of digital resources and other tools for lifelong learners. But real books remain on the shelves, and librarians are still on hand to guide patrons through the Dewey decimal system. And while the Pew report provides some insightful data, it doesn’t quantify more intangible values, such as a library’s role as a community gathering place and the scope and influence of the physical space itself.

For example, the New York City Public Library just finished a complete reconstruction of one of the vast historic ceiling murals original to the building in 1911. The original painting was the work of renowned American muralist and Tiffany Studios designer James Wall Finn and features a serene blue sky with a dynamic array of clouds.

“What we tried to do is create this timeless sky ... to get lost in and to contemplate under,” said mural director Bill Mensching.

And what about a library’s role as a community gathering space? In an increasingly technologically rich but physically disconnected world, libraries offer an important place for people to connect. Through preschool story times, musical concerts, book clubs, movie nights, and guest speakers, libraries offer a myriad of programs designed to bring diverse community members together for shared experiences.

“I think there is a clamoring in the community for a place for people to come together,” said Denver City, Colo., librarian Michelle Jeske. While digital resources are key to serving the demands of a modern community, she said, the niche for institutions like hers may be in providing an old-fashioned kind of connectivity: “Libraries actually ask people to loiter.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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