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Library deaths greatly exaggerated

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For thousands of years, libraries have offered citizens a place to gather and share ideas, or simply get lost in the pages of a book. At the turn of the last century, however, there were those who believed in the Internet era, nobody would have the time or inclination to use a library anymore. In the 21st century, they argued, these palaces of literacy and learning would become obsolete.

Well, maybe not. According to a 2012 report published by Lumos Research, per capita library usage has increased 45 per cent in the last decade in Canada. Many libraries are seeing record numbers of borrowers. And, of course, one cannot forget last year's major public backlash against recommended cuts to Toronto's library services. Despite all the entertainment options of the modern world, Canadians still love their libraries. To their credit, librarians have worked hard to ensure their institution remains relevant to the public. Recognizing the fast-growing power of the e-reader -- in 2010, six per cent of North Americans used such a device; by 2012, the number had exploded to 33 per cent -- they have heavily invested in making e-books and electronic audiobooks available for download.

Besides making it incredibly convenient to borrow and return a book online, the popularity of the Kobo and Kindle provides new opportunities to increase the efficiency of the library system itself. For decades, public libraries needed to be large spaces housing an expansive collection of books, which requires money for heating, lighting, and maintenance. While there will always be joy in perusing the physical stacks, as more people choose e-readers, city library systems will not have to purchase and store quite so many hard copies.

In San Antonio, Texas, in fact, there are plans to open what is likely the world's first book-free library branch. Called BiblioTech, it will offer only e-books, and patrons will be able to borrow a Kindle as you would borrow a book. In the future, could public library systems have a handful of larger branches -- like the gorgeous Millennium Library -- for those who enjoy browsing, with smaller satellites in community centres or other accessible locations where patrons can read the newspaper, pick up materials delivered from the larger branches, or peruse online collections?

Of course, some may ask why they would even bother to go to the library if they can just borrow online. The answer is a library is about more than just the books themselves; it is also about building a relationship between a librarian and patrons, which studies show helps citizens become more engaged with reading. Thanks to technology, this relationship can become stronger than ever.

A program at the Seattle Public Library, for example, has readers submitting answers to a short questionnaire online to get advice from a librarian on what they might enjoy reading, to foster such a connection before they even set foot in the branch itself.

To encourage greater reader-librarian interaction when patrons do visit, North American libraries could follow the lead of their British counterparts, which have removed their old checkout counters (freeing up space for a more welcoming entrance with appealing new displays) and installed small digital kiosks where patrons borrow and return books themselves. One librarian assists with the kiosks, but other employees are freed from such housekeeping tasks to spend more time with patrons.

Meanwhile, as Matthew Bingham, librarian supervisor at Victoria, B.C.'s central branch notes, "There is so much information out there, but how much of it is good? Librarians can help people navigate the sea of information." Courses offered by knowledgeable librarians on evaluating web sources, online investment or a myriad other subjects could strongly complement the library of the digital age.

Technology is transforming libraries into dynamic new areas of community life. By incorporating traditional and electronic resources, libraries can provide a more pleasurable and engaging experience for patrons, while actually costing less to run. These developments can only help ensure libraries continue to flourish -- which, it seems, is exactly what Canadians want.


Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2013 A11

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