For Future Reference: Far From Faltering in Digital Age, Libraries Thrive as Community Hubs

Published: 8/22/2016 2:23:50 PM
Modified: 2/17/2013 12:00:00 AM
On a recent afternoon at the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon, Nolan Hurley, who is training to become a physician’s assistant, was studying pharmacology at a broad wooden table.

“I like the space,” said Hurley, his handwritten notes and homemade flash cards spread out, along with his laptop and cell phone, at the table near a window-filled wall.

Hurley, 24, usually studies at his Lebanon home, but noise from a nearby construction project has driven him to the library, where it’s quieter. But not silent.

Laughter spills out from a meeting room, where about a dozen people have gathered. In the cafe area, a woman plays a board game with a young girl, the glass pieces tapping on a long wooden board. A girl, her mother and grandmother sip juice and talk at a miniature table in the children’s section, picture book at the ready.

It’s the sort of lively picture that is typical of today’s public libraries in the Upper Valley.

Banks of computers, tables filled with e-readers, visitors pecking away on laptops — libraries look a whole lot different than they did decades ago. The major driver is technology, from e-books to the high-speed Internet access that is especially crucial in rural areas, where homes often lack it.

And for all the talk about the digital age forging generations of loners, the new high-tech libraries have turned out to be busy community hubs.

“Use is absolutely still booming, especially weekday afternoons and Sundays,” said Heather Backman, program coordinator at Howe Library in Hanover. “It’s nuts. We’re just packed.”

Between 2011 and last year, the number of library patrons at the Howe increased, and borrowing of downloadable audio and downloadable books jumped 57 percent, even as overall circulation dropped slightly. The library recently installed a “people counter” at its doors to track foot traffic.

In January, approximately 15,000 people visited the Howe, said Library Director Mary White. “We’re the busiest public building in town.”

A similar scene is being played out across the country.

Physical visits to libraries increased overall by 32.7 percent between 2001 and 2010, despite a slight dip in 2010, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ most recent public libraries survey. Circulation is also up: During the same time period, borrowing increased by 38 percent to 2.46 billion items, an all-time high.

Surprising statistics, perhaps, at a time when information is easily available online. But while digital technology has prompted some would-be visitors to stay home, it’s also at least partly responsible for the dramatic increase in library use.

The Draw of Technology

A Pew Research Center study released last month asked patrons about their library usage over the past five years.

A quarter of respondents said their usage had increased. Of that group, 27 percent said they visited the library more often to do research, access reference materials and media such as e-books and audio books, and use library computers and Wi-Fi. Another quarter said their visits had increased because they enjoy taking their children or grandchildren.

Half the respondents reported no major change, and 22 percent said their usage had decreased. The most common explanation was related to technology: 40 percent chalked up their declining use to the convenience of online access to books and other research tools.

In the Upper Valley, public computers and free Wi-Fi draw steady traffic.

“Seventy percent of rural libraries are the sole providers of free wireless Internet access in their communities,” Backman said. “It’s just massive, the number of people who don’t have access to some of that stuff, and that’s what libraries are there for, to fill that gap.”

In a stagnant job market, public access to computers has become even more important.

On a recent afternoon, Travis Emond was one of several people using the public computers in Kilton Public Library. Emond, a Sharon resident, was looking for jobs online. He worked in machine shops for almost two decades before the economy “went south” a few years ago. Since then, he’s held several different jobs, including driving a taxi and working in a garden shop. When he’s in town, Emond stops at the library to send e-mails or take care of other online business.

Without high-speed Internet access at home, he said, “there’s a lot of stuff I can’t do.”

It’s a common scenario. Nick Clemens, technical services librarian at Quechee Public Library, said he’s seen more people using library computers to file for unemployment benefits and Skype into interviews. He added that and more and more companies are requiring online job applications.

People who work from home are apt to spend several hours at a time working online at the library, said Clemens, whose job includes providing technical services to the three other libraries, and additional library access points, in Hartford. Others stop in to check their email, update their Facebook pages or send photographs to friends.

The heavier usage has prompted libraries to upgrade their Internet capabilities.

“It’s needed,” Clemens said. “Currently we have people coming in, watching videos online, downloading information. ... We are seeing a drain on our bandwidth.”

This year, the Hartford Library, Quechee Public Library and Wilder Club and Library will receive high-speed fiber optic service through Vermont FiberConnect, which is creating a network in southern, central and northeastern Vermont. Vermont

FiberConnect, a partnership between Sovernet Communications and the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, is working on the project with a variety of organizations, including other state agencies, libraries and schools. About 70 percent of the funding will come from a federal grant and 25 percent from Sovernet.

Fiber optic will allow the library to provide services, such as video conferencing, that patrons may want, Clemens said. Once the library is connected, “other businesses locally can branch off from that.”

Internet service on Howe Library’s public computers is provided at very low cost through Comcast. Recently the bandwidth was increased, Backman said, but it’s still not “high, high speed.”

“We do get overloaded,” especially in the afternoons, when school lets out and more adult visitors also seem to stop in, she said. “About 2 to 3 p.m., it just really drops in speed.”

But that will change later this year, she said,

New Hampshire FastRoads LLC is building a fiber optic network in the western part of the state, and Hanover is one of many towns that will be linked in during the first phase of the project. The network is funded 70 percent by a federal grant; the rest was raised privately.

Life After Google: Different Look, Same Purpose

The stereotypical image of a library as a “building full of books” is no longer valid, Backman said. “Now it’s books, and it’s e-books and it’s the Internet. It’s access to a much broader intellectual world.”

But it’s a world that’s sometimes difficult to navigate.

That’s where librarians come in, helping patrons refine their Internet searches or directing them to materials that are not “Google-accessible,” Backman said.

Ken Linge, director of Blake Memorial Library in East Corinth, said people are surprised “all the time” by the resources libraries can access.

“If they want an electronic copy of an article from an academic journal or a news article from years ago, or a manual for an old car, or whatever it is, we can get it for them.”

And there are certain services technology cannot replace.

“Amazon and Netflix, they will suggest things for you, help you find things, but there is still something different about having a person,” Clemens said.

“We can recommend books to you. You’re going to see the same people. You’re going to get a sense of what you want.”

E-Reading Growing

As e-reading catches on, fewer people are reading print books.

According to the 2012 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey, the number of Americans age 16 and older who read print books fell last year from 72 percent to 67 percent. The number of those reading e-books increased from 16 percent to 23 percent. (See related story, right.)

The study also found that e-book borrowing from libraries is growing. The number of recent library users who had borrowed an e-book from a library increased from 3 percent in 2011 to 5 percent in 2012.

Libraries have become the go-to place for help with everything from e-readers to basic computer skills to troubleshooting wireless connections.

“Our e-resources have a big bump in December, which is when everyone gets their new e-readers for Christmas,” Clemens said. Each year, more people “are coming in with the devices saying, ‘How do I use this? How can I get library books on here?’ ”

Many states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, have library consortia that pool resources to provide e-books and audio books. Not all publishers participate, so some books are unavailable. Like printed books, only one person may read an e-book at a time, resulting in waiting lists for many of the items.

So far, Upper Valley libraries say print readership is holding strong.

“There’s (been) an increase in e-usage, but our print usage is also going up,” Clemens said. “We are not losing one; we are just adding a new service.”

Mike Grace, director of Fiske Free Library in Claremont, said print borrowing has held steady in the past several years. E-book use is growing, but slowly. In 2012, print materials accounted for about 63 percent of circulation.

E-books made up less than one percent of the total items borrowed, but he expects e-book usage to increase as the consortium’s collection expands.

‘Reclaiming Space For People’

In the early days of public libraries, people viewed them as a place “where you just got what you needed and left,” said Sean Fleming, Lebanon’s library director. “Now, it’s more a center of community, where you can have a cup of coffee and look for a job online.”

The 15,000-square-foot Kilton Library, which opened in 2010, was built with that in mind.

A survey taken in the planning stages showed that people wanted a civic space in West Lebanon, Fleming said. “We do have stacks in the library and lots of print books, but we have a lot patron space for people to be able to do things, to study, to work, to have a little quiet place to sit down and read.”

While the old West Lebanon Library had no meeting rooms, the new library has three, including a community room that seats 100. Fleming said these rooms, and another in Lebanon Public Library, draw clubs, local nonprofits and public meetings, generally about four a day.

But for many public libraries, often built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, space is limited. Their challenge remains figuring out how to maintain a good collection and still leave room for patrons.

As more books were being published, libraries gradually took all the space they possibly could to fit books and other materials in, Grace said.

“Now, we are kind of going the other way. We are reclaiming some of that space for people.”

The Quechee Library has increased its seating to accommodate the growing number of community groups — knitters, book clubs, films groups — that meet there. Tables with electrical outlets for laptop users were added. A cozy area downstairs has seen “a lot more use” since it was designated a young adult area, Clemens said. “I think it’s more inviting. I think they can feel more ownership of the space.”

Claremont’s Fiske Free Library, which is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, has been steadily increasing its seating. Four new armchairs were recently added to a room in the front of the library where wooden tables already seated eight, and the children’s area is filled with brightly colored miniature tables and chairs.

Technology, with its ability to store ever more data in ever smaller formats, helps, said Grace, the library’s director.

“We don’t have to have all of those big thick reference books that take up so much space.”

Due to budget cuts, the library is discontinuing most of its magazine subscriptions.

It’s not yet clear what they’ll do with the space once held by magazine racks, he said.

No More Shushing

No longer silent repositories for books, even the soundscape of libraries has changed. With all that community gathering going on, the iron-clad prohibition on talking has eased. Conversations are commonplace.

“The library belongs to everyone,” Linge said. “It’s a community living room.”

To that end, today’s libraries are “a little less rigid,” he said. “We want to be an inviting and a comfortable place for people to come.”

To accommodate different tolerances for noise, the Howe has a quiet room. Other libraries have, formally or informally, designated certain areas as quiet zones.

“It’s downright loud in here after school,” Backman said of the Howe Library, and on the rare occasions when somebody complains, she helps them find a quiet spot. Generally, though, “people tend to understand.”

What’s Next?

There’s no doubt that today’s libraries are working hard to adapt to the new information landscape. But, librarians say, that’s nothing new.

“We expect things to change, so it’s not a surprise when they do,” Grace said. “We’re expecting it, and we try to be ready for it.”

Grace’s first job in the library field was in the late ’90s with a company that sells library computer systems. His work included traveling to different libraries, where he trained staff to use the new setup.

The transition from card catalogue to a computerized version “was a big, traumatic thing for a lot of people,” he said, “the mental switch, as well as the technological switch.”

As technology evolves, it’s impossible to predict what libraries will look or sound like in the future. But one thing libraries are planning on is continuing to play a central role in their communities.

“If we have good people in them, they will be vital and they will be active,” Backman said.

“The question is just making sure your community sees that and is willing to pay for it, because a good library does cost money.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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