Art Works Blog

Libraries in the Digital Age

It's no secret that digital technology ranging from e-books to social media is forcing public libraries to innovate and adapt, and patrons are beginning to rethink what defines a library. For instance, a 2012 survey from Pew Research found that while many patrons still want to use libraries for borrowing books, they’re also increasingly thinking of them as community spaces that enable access to technology and digital literacy for residents.

Two libraries that are adapting to 21st century technologies are the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) and the Lewis and Clark Library in Montana. Former and current Big Reads grantees respectively, these two libraries are using technology in exciting ways to expand their programs and remain vibrant centers of information. We spoke with two librarians there—Kaite Stover from KCPL and Suzanne Schwichtenberg from Lewis and Clark—about how their roles and the roles of their institutions are evolving in the digital age.

NEA: Tell me a little bit about your background and experience with libraries.

KAITE STOVER: I have been working in public libraries since 1986. One of my first jobs was in the children’s department of my hometown library. I worked in my college library at the circulation desk. All of my professional experience has been spent in public libraries. My first professional job was Adult Services Coordinator at Emporia Public Library [in Kansas].

SUZANNE SCHWICHTENBERG: I’ve worked in public libraries for 15 years. When I was little my mom would take me to storytime at our public library and when at home, instead of playing house I played Librarian. She was an awfully good sport and would wait until “opening” so she could come to it. Then I’d tell her what books she could check out and she would dutifully wait for her check-out card.

NEA: What challenges do you see libraries facing in the next 50 years due to technology?

STOVER: The rapid pace, development, and adoption of technology places a special demand on the public library. We are the “answer place.” When the general public adopts a device for everyday use, the library is typically the first place they look for instruction in use of the device, the software the device employs, even how to incorporate the device into daily living. Instruction and guidance for the general public on new technologies will always be a challenge public libraries face. Libraries also are a natural agency for bridging the digital divide and improving digital inclusion. Public libraries serve all of the public, even the members of the community who are not connected. Evolving technologies will always be a challenge for libraries. Libraries will also have to look at their existing collections and see how to integrate them with the evolving technology. As well as consider if digitizing certain collections or items is good for the preservation of the item overall.

SCHWICHTENBERG: That’s a good question. The challenge of holding data for people to access is that with technology changing, the mediums keep changing. Practically nobody can access a 3.5" floppy disc anymore, so any information that wasn’t migrated to the new formats is lost. With the rapidity of digital information’s creation and deletion, the library’s job of holding that information will have to change to stay relevant.

Libraries are often considered a cornerstone of democracy because we offer access to everyone. I think that role will not change, but it may become more of a challenge, considering how wily our digital world has become.

NEA: How has your library evolved to take advantage of new technology? Can you give an example?

STOVER: KCPL has evolved services to keep up (as much as possible) with the new technologies. Increased budgets for digital collection materials, ebooks and digital audio, using tablets in our Early Literacy Centers, installing more computers for public use, installing Google Fiber to increase speed, offering streaming services for movies and music. For every Big Read we made sure to have multiple electronic copies of the titles and we’d promote accessing those items to Big Read participants. This actually became an ideal time to introduce some patrons to the library’s digital services.

SCHWICHTENBERG: Our library system serves about 66,000. Since I’ve been here we’ve doubled the amount of desktop computers for the public. We’ve added free scanners and keep our printing and copying costs low. Our teen services department has iPads for the teens to use at programs. We’ve offered classes from how to use a keyboard to how to use your tablet. Our computer class curriculum has changed to offer assistance with current trends. We are part of a statewide consortium that offers ebooks to our readers, we have a subscription to Comics Plus for downloading comics. We use Facebook and Tumblr.

NEA: More specifically, how has social media and technology helped promote your Big Reads programs? Can you give an example?

STOVER: KCPL is always looking to use social media and technology to promote our Big Reads programs. We created discussion groups on Goodreads, created bulletin boards on Pinterest, posted quotes, trivia, related reading, discussion topics on Facebook, and used much of that same material on Twitter. We used Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter, for photos of events.

SCHWICHTENBERG: For the 2014 Big Read we did Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. We worked with Silverstring Media and created a website and we also collaborated on Google Hangouts interviews with Internet mavens. We discussed three themes: The creation of an American Storyverse; Tom’s Iconic (and Ironic) Journey to Adulthood; and Law vs. Morality: Can “Bad” Children be Good Role Models? Our guests were Jenni Powell, producer of the Emmy Award-winning webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; Kyle Walters, Peter Pan in the webseries The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy; and Rachel Hartman, author of the award-winning YA fantasy novel SeraphinaWe also did an introductory workshop with Twine, “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” 

NEA: How has the role of the librarian changed with the growth of technology?

STOVER: Librarians are now expected to be well-versed in emerging technologies. Not only in how to use them, but how the technologies can be adapted for daily life, both personal and professional. How technologies affect reading patterns and preferences.

SCHWICHTENBERG: Another great question. I was going to say yes, the role has changed. But on second thought…I think yes and no. 

On the one hand, librarians maintain physical collections of books magazines, CDs, DVDs. Some collections have expanded to include tools, seeds, kitchen utensils and machines, art, puppets, video games, and more.

Technology has changed our role too. Now we no longer maintain (buy, hold, weed) information only. We provide the access and people find the vast majority of information on their own. But librarians have been doing that for ages, just with books. We show you where the business section is; it’s up to you to decide what information you want and how you want to retrieve it. Look at the index? Read a chapter? Check it out? Look for something else? So that part of a librarian’s role is the same. We still provide the avenue for people to improve their own knowledge base. I think it’s just that the mediums have changed.


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