Library dealing with reinvention curve

A couple unrelated national items last week drew my attention because they came on the heels of a local news item that I found impressive.

In a syndicated story, the LA Times looked at how libraries are “reinventing” themselves as they “struggle to stay relevant.” Although I believe libraries will always be relevant, they are coping with changes wrought by the digital age. The story notes that e-book collections at U.S. libraries grew nearly 60% between 2005 and 2008 while print collections grew less than 1% during the same period.

Yet the growth of digital technology caused Jason Perlow at ZDNet to consider the risk of creating a “digital underclass.” I’m somewhat taken back by Perlow (or the headline writer) referring to this arising “when the libraries die,” particularly when the post recognizes how unlikely it is that 10 years from now everyone will have their own handy — and affordable — digital reader. Ensuring access to books and information is what makes the wonderful institution of the free public library a significant element of any community.

The role of libraries and their reinvention is, I think, documented by what Siouxland Libraries has seen since renovating and expanding its main branch. The first six months since the main branch reopened to the public saw record use. During that time, the main library had close to 7,000 visitors a day and patrons borrowed nearly 267,000 items, a 17 percent increase over the same time period in the last year of normal operation. It’s clear the demand isn’t just for printed material. For example, there were almost 54,000 sessions of computer use during that period, meaning the computers there are being used roughly 300 times a day.

Although I’m still an ink and paper kind of guy, even I have checked out e-books onto my Nook from the library’s collection. Plainly, the usage statistics indicate not only that the library remains relevant but that it is apparently handling reinvention quite well so far.

What is more important in a library than anything else — than everything else — is the fact that it exists.

Archibald MacLeish, The American Scholar (June 5, 1972)

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