CT Libraries as Technology Petting Zoos

October 23, 2011

Libraries Adapt To Demands From Online Users As Well As Visitors Coming Through The Doors

By Bill Leukhardt, wleukhardt [at] courant [dot] com The Hartford Courant

Reference librarians are familiar with queries like "What is Bulgaria's principal export?" More frequently now they're also handling questions like "How do I find the book I just downloaded?"

"We get more and more questions like that daily from patrons," said Pam Kelly, the Wethersfield Public Library supervisor in charge of technology and making sure the library isn't left behind as things change. "People ask us to explain how to use Kindles, Nooks, iPads, tablets — all different devices. The staff has to know a lot. And there's always more to learn." The printed book still rules in libraries, but more and more libraries are acting as a digital gateway, playing roles in two worlds — the tangible and the cyber.

The printed book still rules in libraries, but more and more libraries are acting as a digital gateway, playing roles in two worlds—the tangible and the cyber.

"Clicks and mortar" is what Kelly calls it: "We're kind of running two libraries."

In 2010, Connecticut's municipal libraries loaned 20.9 million printed-on-paper books, so that demand remains strong, said Eric Hansen, electronic resources coordinator with the Connecticut State Library's data service.

He said there is no firm statewide data on e-book use. This year will be the first that the state library will collect those statistics from public libraries, Hansen said. Demand for e-books is growing, but it still represents only a tiny fraction of the total circulation in libraries. Many libraries currently offer free downloads of a limited selection of e-books in a variety of formats. Some don't have any yet.

"The challenge for libraries will be to meet the growing demand for e-books while providing for the continuing demand for physical books," Hansen said.

Internet access is important to library patrons, reflected by the increase of public library Internet stations from 2,598 in 2005 to 3,751 in 2010 statewide.

However, in the same period, public library visits and circulation of physical items each increased about 9 percent each year, an indication that the web-based library is more like a "branch" library than anything else, Hansen said.

Maxine BleiweisMaxine Bleiweis, library director in Westport and a former director of Newington's public library, said libraries are becoming information curators as technology changes the formats of how information is distributed.

"Technology gives us access to so many things we want to learn," she said. "We have to learn the technology."

This year, the Westport library created the job of assistant director of innovation and user experience to help the staff better guide patrons into the changing world of digital information.

Laurel Goodgion, director of the Wethersfield library since 2002 and a librarian for more than 35 years, said one mission of public libraries is "to bridge the digital divide" by providing patrons ways to enjoy the growing wealth of knowledge available through computers and electronic devices.

The Wethersfield library has more than a dozen computer stations patrons can use, offers computer training classes to people, has wireless Internet access, offers more than 500 online classes through two databases and has a website allowing people to sign in and borrow materials without setting foot in the building.

But the vast number of users still prefer to walk in. Last year, the library had 193,637 visitors, up from the traffic of 185,222 the year before.

Like other libraries, the one in Wethersfield library remains a destination — a meeting spot for a knitting group, book clubs, discussion groups, and place where community organizations gather, Goodgion said.

She and other library directors say services based on digital technology are important but only a part of what patrons expect.

In West Hartford, the library circulated 805,609 items last years to patrons at its three branches. At the same time, the library loaned 7,201 electronic items to patrons, West Hartford Library Director Pat Holloway said.

"From time to time we send out surveys and hold focus groups in order to continue to educate people about what is available in libraries – especially if they never cross the threshold – and obviously we are getting a lot more users who do all their library visits from their own homes," Holloway said. "We also use Facebook, Twitter and have our own once-a-week e-newsletter that we send to the 20,000 email addresses that are in our database."

Technology in libraries "is just one piece of a very large puzzle that when assembled provides a snapshot of the communities they serve," Torrington Library Director Karen B. Worrall said. But the library has begun holding what it calls "technology petting zoos" to familiarize patrons with the various devices and how to download an e-book.

"We are definitely adding more online resources and redefining how patrons 'visit' the library;" she said. "Call me naïve, but I think people still enjoy congregating and visiting a place where they run into friends and neighbors or have a shared experience by attending a program. Libraries are, by nature I think, social entities."

Smaller libraries with smaller budgets and resources don't always have the high-tech capabilities of libraries in larger communities. Amy Orlomoski, director of Andover Public Library, said that library " is still pretty small, and we don't offer a whole lot of digital services for patrons." There are public computers but budget constraints here mean no digital downloads, she said.

"As our patrons ask more for digital availability of titles, we'll consider trying to add those options at the library, but for now, we're still pretty much into the printed word here in Andover."