Libraries in the Digital Age

reviewcoffee This confession will probably give some of you a heart attack, but I haven’t read any of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I know, I know. It’s like I’ve been living under a rock buried 3 miles below the surface of the Earth. But lately I’ve been thinking about giving the first book a try. So I sent out a half-joking tweet on the subject. To my surprise, I received a personal response from my local library letting me know that Outlander is available for checkout, should I so desire. Now granted, I’m kind of a dork, but I thought this was really cool. So cool, in fact, that I decided to explore more of the digital/virtual features my local library offers, and get the perspective of the Sacramento Public Library’s Digital Services Librarian Megan Wong on the subject of libraries in the digital age.

When I first heard the term “virtual library,” I immediately pictured sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari, but that’s not really what it’s referring to. Wong explains the virtual library concept this way:
“If virtual libraries could have a slogan, it would be, ‘The library doesn’t end here.’ In other words, the library doesn’t end when a customer walks out of our doors. A virtual library is one where a library user never has to step foot into a library. They should be able to get a library card, download audio books, and renew materials all from the comfort of their own home. Of course, physical books will have to be dropped off and picked up from the physical branch. But all other services in a virtual branch should be available online.”

When I scoured the digital offerings at Sacramento Public Library (SPL), I discovered all kinds of goodies, including ebooks and audiobooks available for download, pre-loaded audiobook MP3 players, a mobile website app for cell phone users, and a whole host of other services in addition to the online renew and request service that I’ve been using for a while now. As Megan Wong puts it, SPL’s goal is “to connect to a younger, more mobile generation by fully implementing our ‘virtual branch.’”

Of course, with some new technologies, cost is a major concern. At SPL, for instance, free technology is implemented on a less formal platform, but other technologies require a more thorough vetting process. “Adopting any new technology for an organization as large as ours is never easy. My job is to analyze what technology the library needs and present my case to our administration. Once I assess whether a particular piece of technology is integral to our service model, I present it to our Innovation Task Force committee which is comprised of IT folks, librarians, and some administration heads,” Wong explains. “Times are tough right now, so the library really has to prioritize which technology will produce the most benefit with the least cost.”

Social networking tools are also changing the way libraries interact with their patrons on a more personal level. Libraries across the nation, including SPL, have hooked into the online world via Twitter, Facebook, blogging, online chats, and text messaging. When asked why SPL decided to embrace these social networking tools, Megan Wong explains:
“Our goal for these social networking sites is to create an online space where we can engage with our customers on their turf, so to speak. We also seek to reach out to a new group of library users that may not have ever stepped foot into a library. Basically, we want to be present online in such a manner that potential library users feel comfortable engaging with us, discovering what our library is about, and utilizing our online services.”

Having been a library user all my life and being a bit of a techno geek as well, I’m thrilled to see libraries adopting new technologies. Currently, I spend more time visiting my library’s virtual branch – especially the digital materials section – than I do the brick-and-mortar branch, and I think you just can’t beat the fabulousness of checking out library books from the comfort of your own home. I’m also loving being able to interact with my local librarians via Twitter, where they share movie and book suggestions as well as keep followers updated on new items in the catalog.

What about you? Does your library have a virtual branch, and do you take advantage of it? Which digital/virtual services do you love at your library, or which do you wish they’d offer? Do you interact with your local librarians via social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, or something else? How important do you think it is for libraries to keep up with the latest advances in technology?

– Katie Mack

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33 Responses to “Libraries in the Digital Age”

  1. Margaret says:

    My library does offer ebooks and audio. I don’t like either format, but I do think it’s a great idea to offer a variety of formats to reach as many as possible.

    I don’t twitter or facebook, and I love going to the library…it’s about more than the books, it’s family and community time.

  2. MarissaB says:

    Denver Public Library has e-books and audio e-books available for download thru the web. I tried both but was turned off by the security and by having to install Overdrive Console on my PC. Also, since these books are virtual, I thought there would be no waiting line for them. Not so. They only allow a limited number of users to have copies of the books at any given time. Geez. Virtual should mean any number of people should be able to “borrow” at the same time, especially since they have security attached that disables the reading/listening after a specified timeframe. I just don’t get that.

    My local public library is slowly moving towards using more technology. They just finished a spanking new building and have increased their catalog immensely. The sad thing is that I no longer get to chat with the librarians behind the desk. Actually, the desk has disappeared. All they have now is a centrally located table where, if you are lucky, one of the staff sits to help you. Most of the staff are now behind closed doors doing other things. Everything is so self-serve now, including the check out. I know all these ladies and gentlemen by name. I miss interacting with them, comparing our recent reads, and asking about their families and gardens. I used to enjoy my visits, but now it is more about getting my business done in the shortest time possible. Sad.

  3. RobinB says:

    I volunteer at a medium-sized branch of the local public library, and e-books are on the horizon. Unfortunately, due to budget shortfalls, the e-books are on hold, but the branch has a large collection of audio books which have heavy circulation. I think that as more library patrons acquire e-readers, the demand for e-books will be enough that libraries will acquire them.

    BTW, Katie Mack, don’t be embarassed about not reading the Outlander series until now! Heck, I’ve never read a book by Nora Roberts!! :-)

  4. Tee says:

    We too have had e-book selections and audio versions available for quite a long while in our coop system, which is linked to our state system. Unfortunately, I don’t take advantage of them. I’m still clinging to the written word via books. But I think it’s wonderful that the options are there for those who enjoy that and maybe someday I’ll be among that group.

    I believe purchasing an e-book license or whatever it is for each book does limit the amount of users at a time. Even though it doesn’t appear to make sense, it does really. I know the reason why but someone else will have to explain it because I’d make a mess of it.

  5. Renee says:

    I have not taken advantage of it yet but I understand that I can now through the sony book store ( I have a sony reader) download books from my public library with an active library card. I am ilocated in Chicago and there is a link to the Chicago Public Library that makes the whole experience sound easy and convenient. When I borrow an e-book it remains on my reader until the take out period ends then it disappears. I intend to give it a try soon just to see how well the process works.

  6. caryl garcia says:

    I second Marissa and Margaret’s comments, but there is one very basic on-line service I love and take ruthless advantage of–scouring the online catalogue and putting books on hold on line. I can check the status of my holds or the books I’ve checked out, renew on-line and then trot down to the library when my books have arrived. This doesn’t prevent me from roaming the shelves when I’m down there; nor, actually from the occasional overdue book.

    Still, I’m a long way away from buying a Kindle.

  7. Katie Mack says:

    @MarrisaB and Tee — Libraries purchase a specific number of licenses for ebooks and audiobooks, and only one individual can “borrow” each license at a time, hence the wait lists. It’s likely cost prohibitive for libraries to purchase a large number of licenses for each electronic item in their circulation.

    @Renee — I just got a Sony Reader and immediately started borrowing ebooks from the library. I love it!

  8. Tee says:

    Thanks, Katie Mack. You did well explaining the e-book license privilege. It works similar to some programs that are purchased for PCs. You pay for x amount of users and that’s it. (Well, that’s it unless you know the way thru the “back door” of the computer.)

  9. MarissaB says:

    Thanks for the explantion, Katie Mack. It makes sense that libraries are limited with the number of licenses they have. If the readers waiting get really frustrated, they might end up buying the book instead!

  10. Virginia DeMarce says:

    Arlington County [VA] public library has immense numbers of on-line services, computers available for public use in all the branches, etc. I don’t use it much (other than being able to order articles from academic journals without leaving my house, which is wonderful), but my granddaughters use it a lot.

  11. katyco says:

    I use the online services of my library all the time. As a matter of fact, I just downloaded the audio versions of An Echo in the Bone and Grave Secret from my library. We have several branches, so if I want a book I can request it online and have it sent to my branch for pickup. I can also get all those great BBC and A&E mini series on DVD.

  12. Anne Marble says:

    My library has access to two systems for digital downloads — OverDrive and MyiLibrary (which uses Ingram Digital). This means that users can download their allotted two titles via OverDrive and then get two more through MyiLibrary.

    However, the advanced search function at MyiLibrary should be taken out and shot. :) It lets you search in lots of different categories, such as genres and subgenres, but most of the titles have been lumped into big categories. So you’ll have no titles under Fiction — Action/Adventure and over 850 under Fiction and over 100 under Mystery. Why have a catalog with all those categories (for example, an entire category just for mysteries with cat sleuths) if the titles aren’t put in the write category? It’s too hard to browse through 850 fiction titles, looking for mysteries and thrillers that ended up there.

  13. Catherine says:

    I love love love the online services provided by my local library in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Much like caryl garcia, I use the online services for creating booklists (as many as I want!!); requesting, reserving, cancelling, renewing books. I’m a bit of a “duh” re electronic media (actually I have no interest in that format yet) but that’s not the charm of a library for me – it’s all about the book in hand. One service I especially like is being able to request that the library purchase a particular book. The only proviso is that the book has to be published, i.e., I can’t request purchase of a book that is – for example – to be published in a month’s time.

    Oh my – imagine if we had no libraries!! What a terrible thought!!

  14. Renee says:

    Katie Mack,

    Glad to hear it worked out borrowing books with the Sony Reader. You’ve encouraged me to get set up this weekend and start borrowing books. :)

  15. Anne Gilbert says:

    I’ve read some of the OUtlander series, but not in digital format. Our library doesn’t have digital format yet, and besides, I don’t have any sort of e-book. Yet. However, I will probably end up going that route, and so will our Seattle Public Library, eventually. It’s probably our future, more or less. But they can’t do this immediately, since, another reader mentioned, our library is sufferintg from the effects of citywide budget shortfalls. I should mention, like the author of this blog, I’m a loyal and consistent library user, and quite frankly, I enjoy visiting my local branch or branches, but that’s another story.
    Anne Gilbert

  16. AAR Rachel says:

    My library has e-books and audiobooks that are downloadable, and I love this. They also have a Twitter presence and I’ve had some feedback from them when I tweeted about various library services. I love that you can use the catalog & the research databases from home.

    My preference for libraries, contrary to that of many older librarians who are still shaping library services today, is to focus on the materials, not the programming. I did not learn to read at the library and I don’t need to be entertained or have my child entertained at the library. I like when my tax dollars are spent on the various collections – print, AV, digital – so that all patrons may be served over and over whenever they need knowledge or entertainment.

  17. Jacqueline says:

    I live in a very small town in Western Kentucky, and did in fact work at our local library for several months in 2008. I loved the job more than I can express, however was forced to quit when our funding was slashed by our newly elected governor (new then, of course.) Because our funding was in the toilet, and our community seemed to turn a deaf ear to our cries for help, the library was forced to close its doors part of the week, and cut its operating hours the remainder of the week.

    As a result, I was forced to abandon this job for financial reasons, since my hours were sliced to next to nothing. And then, not long after I left, I discovered that our building was condemned as a result of serious water damage to the foundation of the structure.

    I have no been able to remain in contact with my former coworkers, but knowing what I do, this is a sad state of affairs. Living in such a small community which lacks a real bookstore to begin with, it makes it difficult knowing that our library has essentially suffer one bad hit after another.

    The truly sad part in this story is that before our funding was originally slashed the library was making great strides in trying to adapt to the changing culture, beginning to branch out into the virtual library and digital world. I have no idea as to the current financial state of the library’s budget, however I pray that all will be well in the end.

  18. Anne Gilbert says:

    Jacqueline:

    Your story re libraries is incredibly sad. I live in Seattle, which is a large city, and it has a functioning(more or less) public library system. However, last August, the library system was closed last August, due to severe budget constraints. They were basically competing wth a lot of equally restricted social service agencies for the same very small slice of the budget pie. As of February 3, the majority of branches in our library system had their hours cut, so that they’re not open Fridays and Sundays, among other things. I can say that the main library and five branches are open as usual, but these cuts are still bad for students, people looking for jobs — and there are a lot of unemployed people around here, though it’s not as bad as in other parts of the country — and immigrants trying to learn English so they can become citizens, among others. This is bad enough. But when people don’t even understand that libraries are an important ingredient in every community, it’s really sad. I feel bad for you and your community, and I hope something percolates soon.
    Anne G

  19. mobile websites are already growing these days. pretty soon we would have tons of them.~~.

  20. Hannah Hall says:

    mobile websites are already growing these days. pretty soon we would have tons of them.~’;

  21. there are growing number of mobile websites these days, there would be more in the future,`:

  22. there is a growing trend in mobile websites this year alone”`

  23. there is a growing trend in mobile websites this year alone,-.

  24. when i was quite younger, i alway enjoy online chatting with friends and relatives “”

  25. hmmm, i would love to browse mobile websites from now on, ‘-~

  26. Erin Turner says:

    hmmm, i would love to browse mobile websites from now on, ‘..

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