The Internet was supposed to send Americaâ€™s public libraries the way of eight-track tapes and pay phones. It turns out, theyâ€™re busier than ever.
Libraries have transformed from staid, sleepy institutions into hip community centers offering Internet service, classes for kids and seniors, and even coffee and video gaming nights. Some have classes on citizenship for recent immigrants or provide sessions on improving computer skills. Most offer wireless Internet service, and many consult teen advisory councils for guidance on how to attract young people.
At most libraries, traffic is up â€” in some cases, way up â€” fueled in part by the lure of free computer use, according to experts and a Gannett News Service analysis of state and federal data.
Books remain a staple, but libraries also offer DVDs, CDs and electronic audio books playable on portable MP3 devices. Many allow readers to reserve and renew items online.
In Vermont, the story is the same â€” the state boasts the highest number of Internet-ready computers per capita in the country: 11.1 per 10,000 people. Small, public libraries across the state are keeping up and staying open, in most cases even increasing traffic.
â€œWe have a very supportive community,â€ said Holly Hall, director of Deborah Rawson Memorial Library, which serves Jericho and Underhill. â€œWeâ€™ve added more public-access computers so more people can access the internet.â€
Hall said much of the district doesnâ€™t have access to high-speed Internet, and the libraryâ€™s nine public-access computers are used by an average of 40 people each day.
The library plans to add two more computers to satisfy the demand.
â€œAs a group, libraries have embraced the digital age,â€ said Lee Rainie, founding director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which has surveyed public attitudes toward libraries. â€œTheyâ€™ve added collections, added software and hardware, upgraded the skills of their staff. A lot of institutions have had to change in the Internet age, but libraries still have a very robust and large constituency.â€
A December 2007 Pew survey found that more than half of Americans â€” 53 percent â€” visited a library in the past year. Thatâ€™s expected to grow as more people look for free resources and entertainment in a slowing economy.
People between 18 and 30 were most likely to visit a library and also were the most likely to say theyâ€™d return, the Pew survey found.
To keep younger audiences coming in, Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes has diversified its selection.
â€œWe just started getting books on CDs,â€ said Linda Braginton, assistant librarian. â€œWe also have a lot of movies on VHS and are starting to move into DVD.â€
In Charlotte, the newest addition to the libraryâ€™s arsenal is the Playaway, a device the size of a pack of gum that contains a single audiobook. The listener plugs headphones in, pushes a button and listens.
â€œKids love them,â€ said Sherrie Simmons, director of the Charlotte Library.
The GNS analysis compared data from 2002 and 2006 on the nationâ€™s nearly 9,200 local library systems, using information provided by the National Center for Education Statistics and by each state and Washington, D.C.. GNS also looked at state-level data compiled by NCES for 2005, because in some cases that data were more reliable or complete than information from 2006.
The analysis found:
— Attendance increased roughly 10 percent between 2002 and 2006 to about 1.3 billion. Regionally, Southern states lag the rest of the country in visits per capita.
— Circulation, which measures how often library visitors check out print or electronic materials, increased about 9 percent, from 1.66 billion to 1.81 billion during the period.
— Nationally, library spending on day-to-day costs such as staffing and materials was $31.65 per person in 2005. The District of Columbia and local governments in Ohio and New York topped the list, spending at least $50 per capita. Local governments in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia spent the least â€” less than $17.
— The number of Internet-capable computers soared 38 percent between 2002 and 2006 â€” from about 137,000 to nearly 190,000. Libraries in rural states in New England and the Midwest led the country in public computers per capita in 2006.
The increase in Internet access is thanks in part to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which launched a national program in 1997 to bring the Internet to libraries, beginning with the South.
By 2003, the foundation had spent $250 million on some 47,000 computers, as well as training and tech support, bringing almost every public library online, said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the foundationâ€™s U.S. Libraries initiative.
â€œYou should be able to walk into any library and find Internet service,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s free, unfettered access to information.â€
Free Internet access is particularly important for low-income people, said Ken Flamm, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the role of the Internet in public libraries.
Only about a third of households with incomes below $25,000 have Internet access, according to federal data.
â€œIn a world in which Internet access is increasingly important for all sorts of things, from getting a driverâ€™s license to preparing a homework project or looking for a job, this is becoming a vital lifeline for the least advantaged segment of the population,â€ Flamm said.
At Burlingtonâ€™s Fletcher Free Library, the computer terminals are ever-busy.
â€œThe free wireless is really popular,â€ said Robert Coleburn, co-director. As he was spoke, 10 users were logged onto the libraryâ€™s wireless network. The libraryâ€™s computer center, which consists of 12 stations, has plenty of traffic, he said.
â€œWe had over 6,000 users in the month of June,â€ he said. â€œThat was our highest month ever.â€
Coleburn said book circulation numbers have gone down, but â€œonly a bitâ€ by his estimation. As for new formats to keep the younger generation happy?
â€œWe have so many media formats, itâ€™s almost hard to keep track of them all,â€ he said.
Free Press Staff Writer Connor Boals contributed to this report. Contact Ledyard King at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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