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Today's public libraries a community hub

When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, hundreds of thousands of people were in the dark for days, if not weeks.

In New Canaan, not being able take a warm bath or to watch TV was challenging, but many residents quickly found a place to charge their electronic devices or access the Internet -- the town's public library.

"We had people literally sitting everywhere," Susan LaPerla, New Canaan Library's programming director, said. "We had power strips plugged into every outlet. People were on the floor. People were in the Lamb Room. We had chairs lining the entire gallery so people could be near the outlets to charge their devices. ... The only thing we couldn't offer was showers."

Such a scene probably was unthinkable several decades ago, when most public libraries still resembled quiet reading rooms filled with bookshelves. But in the years since computers entered library spaces, the facilities have been under constant change.

Today, public libraries offer dozens of computers, scanners, Blu-Ray discs and even 3D printers. Some library patrons read books or newspapers while others are using a computer, their own laptops or gathering in a meeting room.

The time when libraries were considered book depositories is gone, and as libraries around the country celebrate National Library Week from April 13 to 19, we take a look at how they have become community hubs and how New Canaan Library is one of the leaders of this change.

Diversity

Last month, the library launched MakerLab, which features a 3D printer, two touchscreen computers equipped with 3D technology and video production software and a VHS to DVD dubbing station. The space also hosts new technology classes and instruction, which library officials hope to expand over time.

"I want us to be offering something to everybody in the community, not just us who are readers," Executive Director Lisa Oldham said. "Books are just one method of transmitting ideas. Hands-on learning is no less valuable than a book. It's just a different way of transmitting knowledge."

The library's programs have become more and more diverse over the past few years. Some examples include a home-brewing workshop for beer enthusiasts in February, a spa fair with wellness workshops in March and a class on bicycle maintenance April 5.

Oldham, who assumed the director job last July, said she has tried to offer the widest variety of topics possible because they are what the community wants.

"We are trying to cover all areas of human knowledge in our collections, so I feel we should do the same in our programming." Oldham said.

LaPerla agreed that the public is shaping how libraries function, but she believes books always will be the library's main product.

"I think all libraries try to meet the needs of the community that they serve," LaPerla said. "Believe it or not, books are still very popular. I wouldn't take anything away from books. But I think that a lot of what we do is in response to what people in the community would like to know and need to know." Read Full Article 

What about the books?

LaPerla is right when it comes to books. New Canaan has one of the highest rates of book checkouts in the state.

New Canaan Library's book circulation per capita is 33.9 -- which is almost 34 books for every resident of the town, even though not everyone is a library member -- according to June 2013 figures by the Connecticut State Library. The number is about four times the statewide average, which is 8.6 percent. The average for Connecticut towns with populations about the size of New Canaan -- between 17,000 and 25,000 -- is 12.4 percent.

"Books are still our primary vehicle," Oldham said. "Of the people who walk through the door every day, a significant portion of those are here to get a book. And I don't think that's going to change."

Kathryn Zickuhr, of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, said people around the country still view libraries mainly as a place to borrow books.

"People still identify libraries, very generally, with printed books in a way that's really fascinating," Zickur said.

In a January 2013 report on library services in the digital age, Zickur found that almost three-quarters of people who visited a library in 2012 did so to borrow print books.

Oldham noted, however, that the print book circulation worldwide has decreased. "The trend for the last 30 years has been a very gradual decline," she said, mostly because of the rise of e-reading devices and tablets.

People across the country have different views about whether public libraries should move books and stacks out of public locations to free up space for tech centers, meeting rooms and events. Twenty percent of Americans ages 16 and older said libraries should "definitely" make those changes, according to Pew's report.

New Canaan Library patron and resident Dick Bergmann, 79, said he would oppose such reorganization.

"I don't want to see the library getting into all these diverse activities at the expense of books," Bergmann said. "Computers are taking up an awful lot of space here. And in most libraries, they're taking up even more."

Giving people

what they need

Rebecca Miller, editor-in-chief of industry publication Library Journal, said the reorganization is in response to people's needs.

"Libraries are interested in defining space for people, not things," Miller said. "When they build, they think of what people will be doing in the room before putting books in the room."

A recent report by the Young Adult Library Services Association on the future of libraries and teens said libraries used to be grocery stores and now need to be kitchens.

"Libraries must leverage new technologies and become kitchens for `mixing resources' in order to empower teens to build skills, develop understanding, create and share, and overcome adversity," according to the report. "The library can no longer be viewed as a quiet place to connect to physical content. Instead it needs to evolve into a place, physical and virtual, where individuals can learn how to connect and use all types of resources, from physical books to apps to experts in a local, regional or national community."

Bergmann, who does use the library's computers, said he fears new digital resources, like the MakerLab, will replace books as the main vehicle.

"To me, the library is mainly about books," Bergmann said. "I'm a little concerned about that kind of stuff. 3D printing is probably an interesting thing to get into, but it's not very productive."

Bergmann -- who, along with his wife, takes out about five books every week -- is not alone in his passion for books. The Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of Americans say borrowing books is a "very important" service libraries provide.

Pew's 2013 report also shows that 91 percent of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities.

In fact, both Oldham and LaPerla consider the New Canaan Library a community center.

"There are other places that function as a community center, but I don't think they attract everyone from every sector from our community the way we do," Oldham said. "We're here for young and old, wealthy and not so wealthy. Whatever you fall on the political spectrum, you're just as welcome in here. We're neutral on all things that might divide. I think we're a very unifying force in the community."

Zickur said some libraries look more like community hubs than others.

"It can vary widely by locality," Zickur said. "Some libraries might be the only community-gathering space in a community. In other places, they might be just one of many places, and then maybe people use libraries more for resources than for community gathering."

One of the most popular reasons why people visit the New Canaan Library is to learn how to use electronics or access library content on their device. LaPerla said the library does about 40 one-on-one tutorials a month with individuals who come in with some sort of device that they want to know how to use.

When it comes to e-readers, Miller said many people discover how to use one at a library.

"There's an element of the library that is a tech educator," Miller said. "The library, as a sort of fundamental role, is there to help people use things better and to be able to use tech and be able to access the information on the other side of the connect button, whether that's information for education and entertainment, it's all layers of what the library provides."

Pew's report shows that about half of Americans who have visited a library in the past year say they did so to get help from a librarian. The report also found that 49 percent of those who visited a library in 2012 said they did so to sit, read, study or watch or listen to media.

Gradual changes

Miller also said libraries have undergone changes for many years. Gone are the days when people couldn't speak to each other inside a library, she said.

"I haven't considered the library a quiet place for a long time," Miller said. "They've historically been study spaces and places to read though that's more appropriate for academic settings, but those are pretty engaged and vibrant places as well in terms of action and as a learning commons."

"A quiet place" is not a good description of libraries nowadays. But there was a time when they were known as the quietest places in a town.

Mary Tiani, 90, said the New Canaan library was much quieter when she began working there 46 years ago.

"We couldn't talk loud. We had to be very quiet," she said. "You would have to go out (to talk). Now, it's very lenient."

Tiani processes and mends books and DVDs for the library. She sees the latest library changes as natural and necessary.

"The library is getting bigger and, you know, we have to keep getting new things," Tiani said.

Library patron Gary Palmer, of Greenwich, said he takes advantage of as many resources as possible and welcomes the changes.

"I come here for books, Internet access, events and periodicals," Palmer said. "I would always expect a good public library to be a repository for printed materials, but they have to adapt with the times. To keep the pace with technology is essential."

Like Palmer, 77 percent of Americans consider free access to computers and the Internet a "very important" service of libraries, according to the Pew Research Center.

Though he welcomes all the digital resources, Palmer, a self-employed marketing consultant, said he still sees the value of visiting a library in person.

"You can get so much stuff online by subscribing to professional research services, like LexisNexis and that sort of stuff, but being able to do firsthand research is always going to be important," he said.

But printed books have yet another competitor: e-books. According to the Pew Research Center, more Americans than ever are reading e-books -- 28 percent of adults ages 18 and older, as of January 2014.

Only 4 percent of surveyed Americans, however, have abandoned print books entirely and switched to e-books, Pew's research shows.

In New Canaan, e-book readership is skyrocketing. The library's e-book circulation per capita in fiscal year 2013 was 0.86, which is six times the statewide average. The average for Connecticut towns with populations between 17,000 and 25,000 was 0.22.

An abundance of resources

Despite the decline in print book readership and the rise in e-book readership over the years, the 2008 financial crisis brought more people into libraries and changed book-borrowing behavior throughout the world, according to Oldham.

"During the global recession that we just had, all library use rocketed, ours included," Oldham said. "Library use and book borrowing spiked up hugely. People lost their jobs, they wanted to retrain, they had free time on their hands. They found themselves suddenly with more time and they wanted to develop some new intellectual pursuit."

In New Canaan, the raw number of items circulated in 2013 was 487,765, down from 530,000 in 2009 during the economic crisis.

Oldham said she thinks most people still visit the library because of the books, but she admits that behavior is changing.

"My instinct says it's still probably the primary reason people are coming to the library, but I think it's changed a great deal," Oldham said. "People come in to use the computers all day long. People come to use the Wi-Fi. You see people just sitting at the tables. They're not looking at books."

New Canaan resident Laura Cunningham is one of the many patrons who take full advantage of the library resources. She has a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son who she brings to the library at least once a week.

"My daughter is a kindergartner, so we go to these Easy Reader books, and I check out eight or 10 books," Cunningham said. "That has been amazing for her. That's really helped her learn how to read."

On top of that, Cunningham takes out a bag filled with about 15 books, on average, every two weeks so she can read to her daughter every night. Cunningham also brings her son to the library's Story Time, a weekly program focused on themed stories, music and a short films for kids younger than 5.

After a Story Time session with her son April 1, Cunningham was looking for an uplifting book she could bring to her grandmother, who was recently injured.

"She broke her heel. She's been in a nursing home," Cunningham said. "She's not much of a reader, but she loves to listen to things. I'm going to try to find books that are on CDs and check them out for her to listen to."

Resource sharing

Oldham said she doesn't think the library's recent technological innovations are a privilege of affluent communities like New Canaan and Darien.

"We're not cutting-edge," she said. "This is just like the way public libraries were founded. It's resource sharing. A 3D printer is not something you're going to buy for home. But if we collectively have one as a community, and we can all use it. ... Soon, people are going to be able to have it at home."

Miller said libraries around the country vary in what digital resources they are able to offer.

"Some places have a lot of access and some places don't," Miller said. "The most dynamic libraries are learning to grasp new technologies and get at digital content and use it."

Though she agreed the New Canaan Library is not cutting-edge, LaPerla said the community is interested in keeping up with the digital age.

"People here are really smart, so they really want to take advantage of the technology," LaPerla said. "They want to make the most of the technology because they know it has so much benefit to them."

Exchanging ideas

Oldham said libraries have been about the exchange of ideas since at least the 3rd century B.C., when one of the first in the world was built, the Ancient Library of Alexandria.

"In Alexandria, they had drama, they had debates and they had facilitated discussions," Oldham said. "It's always been about the exchange of ideas. From that perspective, the fact that we now use video, e-books, digital audio, it's just new tools. The underlying fundamental concept about the exchange of ideas is still the same.

"The exchange of ideas has been the bedrock concept all along. We just have so many more tools today."

Oldham said the 3D printing is another way to stimulate ideas and creativity.

"In the past, maybe you came into the library, you read a book, you got a whole lot of ideas, you used it either to build something else, write a new story, create something, have a conversation or you just added it to your knowledge," Oldham said. "Now you can come in, learn to use a 3D printer, learn computerized design and turn it into something else that, if you're a teenager, you may get turned on to engineering, and suddenly you've got so many more options and opportunities."

Oldham said the changes will continue, but public libraries always will be like "a third social space in the community."

"It's not work, not school, it's not home. It's neutral territory for everybody. And everybody is welcome," Oldham said. "There are very few rules. If you just want to come and sit, that's good. If you want to use our Wi-Fi, if you want to use our computers, if you want to read books. Whatever you want to do, within the limits of civil society, is fine."

Miller agrees that libraries will continue to refine how they serve the community and the community needs. "As communities change, the contents change," she said.

After hundreds of people gathered at the library after Superstorm Sandy, the library received an anonymous gift to upgrade its wireless network. If New Canaan residents ever have to camp at the library again to charge their devices and use the Internet, the library would be able to serve about 1,000 of them simultaneously.

That's another example of how libraries thrive to give people what they want.

"Libraries are very interested in being vital and answering needs, so they identify the needs and they respond to them," Miller said. "It's always been a myth that libraries have been book warehouses."

Staff writer Megan Spicer contributed to this report.

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson

More Information

New Canaan Library Timeline
1877: A group of dedicated volunteers established the New Canaan Library
1895: The town of New Canaan gives the library its first annual grant of $100
1900: New Canaan population nears 3,000
1912: Book circulation reaches 20,000
1913: Library moves to its new building at the corner of Cherry and Main streets
1937: The area which now houses the library's gallery and lobby are added to enlarge the Children's Room
1962: New Canaan population reaches 15,000
1979: Dedication of the Lapham Wing
1981: Circulation reaches 200,000
1989: Lamb Room opens
1994: Salant Lecture series begins
1995: Internet access offered, with instruction
1996: Library launches its first website
1999: Technology Center opens
2000: New Canaan population reaches 19,000
2003: Circulation reaches 400,000
2004: Wireless Internet available throughout the building
2005: Author on Stage program begins
2008: Self-checkout station opens
2009: Circulation reaches 530,000
2014: MakerLab opens with a 3D printer and touchscreen computers

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