Imagine a magical place full of free community activities, social programs, toys, movies, video games and all the free music, e-books and help with technology you’d like.
Today’s libraries offer it all, plus they still have the books and quiet spaces.
“I know there’s debate about the death of libraries but I think they’re just breathing a new life,” said Qualicum Beach library manager Eileen Gillette, who finds this an exciting time for the venerable institution.
Gillette and Parksville-Bowser library manager Janet Delgatty recently spoke to The News about the speed of change and all the new services in today’s libraries.
“Librarians were always about how to use the tools, but we’re even way more about that now,” said Delgatty. “People who can figure out, for instance e-books on their own, do. The people that we help are often people who need extra help with the technology.”
“It’s wonderful to see people, I don’t want to stereotype, but often older people who we help and they’ll come back and say ‘I’ve got it and I’m reading e-books all the time’ and they’re in their 80s,” she said.
“Our role is becoming more multifaceted, we do the same work but it’s being used in different forms and platforms,” Gillette said, suggesting in the Vancouver Island Regional Library system at least, “libraries are moving with the change.”
While people are still using libraries as much as ever — with the number of items borrowed going up around eight per cent a year — only about half of users borrow a physical book.
“I really like the word ‘experiencing’ libraries,” Gillette said, “so when you walk in the door you may want to get a book, or you may find electronic resources or think ‘oh I can read a bunch of magazines,’ or bump into somebody, and I think that will only increase as there are more e-books and electronic services which will open up more space.”
E-books, or digital books that can be read on computers, smart phones and e-readers like Kobo, are booming.
“Everybody was buying their grandparent e-books the last two Christmases,” Gillette said.
“I have actually thought, I wonder what I used to do before I helped people with e-books,” Delgatty quipped, “and we were really busy before.”
Members currently have access to over 15,000 e-books, which people are also using as a way into the newest technology.
“When people get e-books we’re not only showing them how to download it, we’re showing people how to use it,” Gillette said. “We’re helping people create e-mail addresses or search things on the net, I think with this whole digital divide there is a segment of the population we deal with every day that we try to train.”
And there are many new services to explain, including things like Freegal, where every song in the Sony Music library, hundreds of thousands of songs are available for free downloads that you can keep — unlike e-books which expire after a few weeks.
While limited to three songs a week, Delgatty said it is a great, easy to use system and while she pointed out they also have Zinio, a digital magazine service people can browse, she wished it worked more like Freegal.
“We’ve actually offered access to full text magazines for years, but its the popularity of e-books now that is popularizing that service too.”
The technology is also improving access to standards like consumer reports and automobile repair manuals which people can now access — and keep — without going to the physical library.
There has also been an explosion in self publishing, which Delgatty pointed out has been around for decades but exploded in the desktop publishing era and really took off with e-books.
“If somebody lives in our service area and they’ve published a book, we will put it in the collection as long as it meets our overall criteria,” Delgatty said.
The library is reflecting changes across society, Delgatty said, pointing out that with each new technology people predict the death of the previous media, but “it’s not that we’ve given up on any of those other things, people want our books and our movies and our TV and Internet, so what will it look like in 10-20 years?”
“I think its’ win win,” Delgatty said, “because if we still need this space, then we have it, if we don’t then we’ll have the space for a community gathering place and programs and partnerships.”
Those programs are also booming, with local branches offering dozens from more traditional like guest authors, storytime for kids, babytime, dad’s night and literacy programs, along with sessions on e-books and Skype.
The two local branches have about 18,000 members together, which is good, but Delgatty points out it is short of their catchment area of about 24,000, so there are plenty of people out there who have yet to discover them.
It’s also promising, they note, that their members’ ages roughly reflects the community’s demographics. Around 90 percent of their users are adults, compared to 84 per cent of the population and that hasn’t changed much in previous decades.
The physical space doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. In fact the VIRL is working on new branches in north Nanaimo, Sooke and Lake Cowichan and Gillette points out libraries still rank high with schools and hospitals in people’s choice of where to live.
And while it looks like they might compete with community centres, Gillette suggests the educational aspects make them different.
“We have so much access to information, but what kind of information are you getting? The Internet’s a big mess of things — part of our job is not only providing access to it, but showing sourcing and what’s accurate or not,” Gillette said. “Our job is more the tools, facilitating that process.”
But while there are questions about the future, Delgatty is clear about their importance. “Its the ultimate democratic institution, publicly funded, it provides pretty much unrestricted access to information and is open to everybody, that’s democracy in action.”
Stop at your local library or check http://virl.bc.ca for more information.