In Focus: Libraries in the Digital Century

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Modern society is filled with technology. Digital devices are incredibly complex, but they are being used to complete the most simple of tasks. While individuals may appreciate the added convenience, the most fundamental of businesses are losing money and having to close their doors.

In this world of wireless Internet and tablets, many would expect print based services like the library system to falter and have difficulty keeping up with digital trends. But, this is simply not the case in the Appalachian region. In a time when more and more people are leaving physical books behind and turning to hand held devices for reading, libraries in this area are not only standing strong, but growing and thriving.

Increasing Traffic

It may not make sense at first, but when comparing the library system usage to the poverty level in this area, it is quite easy to spot a trend. The more people can’t afford technology, such as computers or the Internet, the more they turn to their local library. Many of the patrons are no longer visiting to check out a book, but rather to check their email or surf the Internet.
Nelsonville Branch Manager James Hill says, “Our traffic continues to honestly increase every year as far as actual people coming through the door. We have even more people using only our website”. 
Libraries are doing everything they can to bring in more computers and get the fastest Internet in order to better serve their patrons. The buildings once thought to only hold books now house the latest tech gadgets–all for the community to use free of charge. One of the most important changes the library is making directly concerns the patrons and those technology devices.

Teaching Technology

Dan Strecker is one of the library assistants at the Marietta branch, but he spends much of his time not in the role of a librarian, but as a teacher. Libraries in the region have recognized the disconnect between older generations wanting to keep in contact with families and friends, and the technology that could allow them to do so.  The Marietta branch offers more than twenty technology educational classes, covering topics from how to use Microsoft Office to recovering lost data off of a hard drive.
Strecker says, “Most of my students are in their 50’s and up and these are people who did not grow up with computers. The kids say you need a computer and often the kids just go out and buy a computer and say, here Mom, you got a computer, now use it.”
Other library branches are beginning to take the educational approach, as well. The Nelsonville library provides one-on-one training for individuals who need assistance with a computer or other electronic device. Patrons can receive an hour of help each week with a staff member. James Hill says his staff has helped people with a variety of questions, everything from how to work a mouse to how to download an e-book.
The Athens County Library even held a Gadget Day in honor of National Library Week last April. Patrons visited the library and asked any technology related questions they had, in addition to receiving personal help on a variety of digital topics.

Budgeting for the Future

While the libraries have worked very hard to implement these programs, the money to bring in news technology has to come out of a budget growing tighter every year.  Libraries in Athens County are funded by the state public library fund.  They can't rely on outside sources of income beyond the money made from photocopies, printing, and faxes. So libraries are utilizing more of their budgets for computers, Internet, printers and the upkeep of the few e-readers or tablets they own.
James Hill says, “Our total budget is just under two million dollars annually and if you count the high speed Internet and all that type of stuff, we probably spend, on equipment, probably forty to fifty thousand dollars a year”.
The money spent on technology and software has steadily increased over the years, as patrons request more servies or when new technology becomes available.

E-book Trend

The Ohio E-book Project has gained popularity in every branch it has been implemented. The project involves approximately 80 libraries around the state that share digital books, audio files, and videos that all Ohio library patrons have access to.
While the libraries don’t have the resources to allow every patron to check out an e-reader device, they do offer a download service of digital content for almost every e-reader or tablet device on the market. The program has received amazing feedback; hundreds of patrons use the service each month.
The e-books have become so popular, in fact, that extremely high demand is becoming a problem for the project. Many of the book titles are only available to two or three patrons at a time, so many e-reader users end up waiting weeks for the digital version of their favorite title.
Patrons can only check out the e-books for two weeks at a time with no chance to renew, putting the pressure on patrons to finish the book while it’s available. James Hill says his library had a large increase in e-book  patrons after Christmas because so many people received the latest gadget as a gift.
More and more of the library branches are in the process adding e-books to their list of services. The Logan library is one that changed its software and underwent a three to four month tech change to accommodate the e-books starting March 1st.  The project continues to grow and relies on user feedback to develop. Patrons can request titles, music and videos at any local library using the consortium.

Libraries in the Future

The libraries in this region have seen their patrons' needs evolve, witnessing the change in desire from hardback books to sleek, lightweight e-readers and tablets. Many of the older patrons remember when they used to come only for books, and now come to use computers for their personal lives and work.
When reflecting on the changes in what people want, James Hill said, “I have an aunt who … is also a librarian. She’s fond of saying typewriters did not replace pencils, however computers replaced typewriters. So there’s always going to be a base need, whether it’s a pencil or a book, but then there’s always going to be new technology to keep up with because that’s what people are using, and, for whatever reason, it’s more popular or more convenient or just easier to use in general. So there’s still a need for pencils but you can do a lot of stuff on a computer too”.
For more information on the services your local library offers, check the county library's or state's library system website.