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The public library in an Internet age: a series from Michigan Radio

Sep 1, 2015

Credit Carolyn Gearig/Michigan Radio

  Pre-Wikipedia there was the encyclopedia.

Pre-Google there was the reference desk.

  

In the age of the Internet, what’s the future of the local library?

“They will be even more of community spaces than they are today,” said Judith Fields, a professional-in-residence at the Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science, who spent much of her career working at public, academic, government, and corporate libraries. “There will probably be fewer books ... People will meet in the library to do a variety of things. The library is morphing 

into basically becoming a community center for the old, the young and everybody in between.”

We drove across the state and visited several local libraries to see for ourselves. We found libraries that serve their communities in different ways.

Some still use card catalogs; they stay open when the power goes out.

Others offer their patrons access to all kinds of technology. 

Collections are quickly changing as libraries grow their e-book options and maintain print options, said Joe Hamlin, data analyst for Michigan Public Libraries. In 2014, there was a 62.66% growth in e-book collections across the state and a 33.87% growth in audio collections. Print collections declined, but only by 1%.

“It’s really exciting to see how much more material is available to patrons because of that growth,” Hamlin said.

However, that material hasn’t been used to the extent that librarians would hope. Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information Science, where she works with libraries to develop makerspaces – physical locations where people can share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network, and build.  

Fontichiaro points to a Pew Research Center survey that found that 91% of Americans value having a library in their community, but only 53% reported visiting a library in the past year. Numbers like these are making libraries rethink their role in the community, she said.

“I think libraries are looking at how to bridge that gap between respect for our institution and use of our institution,” she said.  

On the west side of the state, the Kent District Library system has fully embraced that position, creating a “director of innovation and user experience” position last year. The job went to Michelle Boisvenue Fox, who said libraries there are taking a systematic approach to figuring out user need with the “design-think process.” It’s a research process that was born in manufacturing trades like furniture design, where designers and engineers research consumer needs, wants, and reactions to products.

Fontichiaro said in the last 40 years, libraries have all shifted toward that kind of thinking. They’ve evolved from places that housed collections to destinations for unique experiences; from elite spaces for educated people to “communal democratic spaces.”

“We’re at a crossroads in the community where many different people come together,” said Boisvenue-Fox. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the community.”

That’s because libraries make things free, whether it’s Wi-Fi, books, or gathering spaces.

Fontichiaro said support for Michigan libraries through millages has remained strong, even during the 2008 recession.

“That is is a sign of great optimism for the future of not just libraries but for the future of curious communities, which is really what libraries are designed to serve.”

Over the past two months we’ve traveled throughout the state to see how libraries in Michigan are serving curious Michiganders. See the rest of our stories on Michigan libraries here and here.

– Carolyn Gearig and Paula Friedrich