When MJ Wilkerson asked if I would be interested in joining a committee tasked to chart the future of Alamance County libraries, I was flattered. But more than that, there is a history. My grandmother was a key figure in bringing a library to Stokes County decades ago. My first career was in newspapers and journalism. I still write for a living.
And more than anything else I have cherished books all my life. When the brand new Stokes County Library branch opened in Danbury, North Carolina in the mid-1960s, I spent parts of every summer day there reading everything from “Go Dogs Go” and “Where the Wild Things Are” to biographies written for kids about explorer Miles Standish or baseball great Babe Ruth.
So it was a natural fit.
What is officially known as The Alamance Public Library Community Strategic Planning Steering Committee started meeting only a month or two before I left the newspaper in November. MJ, who is the county library director and a close friend with so many shared interests and backgrounds we could almost be twins, is leading the effort. Dr. Anthony Chow, an associate professor in library studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is consulting. He’s provided our group with a ton of background on libraries in general and the future of libraries in particular.
What I quickly discovered is that libraries are in transition much the same way newspapers and reporting are. One example, the number of registered users is down over the past 10 years. Some of the issues we discussed in the late summer and into fall were eerily similar to what I heard in “Future of Newspapers” meetings I attended in the early 2000s. One question kept coming up.: Namely, how to stay relevant in the communities we serve even as media consumption is changing.
Here we go again, right?
One thing I already knew but probably didn’t fully understand is how many services libraries already offer outside of loaning books or videos to cardholders. It ranges from aids to those looking for jobs to a relatively new feature called Zoom Passes – a cool program where cardholders can reserve free or discounted tickets to regional attractions like the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro or the Greensboro Science Center each month. Tickets are limited on a per-cardholder basis so families are encouraged to get as may library cards as they can.
Interesting and smart. It’s pretty unique to Alamance County and some others are now scrambling to duplicate it.
MJ says Zoom is already popular. That doesn’t surprise me. It’s also one very large clue to how libraries will evolve by becoming more things to a greater number of people.
Earlier this week, our group met to look over some numbers. We received deep information about library use that goes well beyond anecdotal. As I mentioned before, the number of registered cardholders is down and overall attendance by adults is slightly lower. On the flip side, though, adults are still checking out fiction books (up 2 percent over 10 years) and book checkouts by kids is up in all areas, except non-fiction. Adult non-fiction use is also way, way down – which makes me wonder if adults are more likely to purchase non-fiction books on Amazon or their local Barnes and Noble. Video checkouts are up 74 percent – which library officials attributed to the decline of video stores and those not yet using streaming services like Netflix. The number of library-sponsored adult programs is way up and library-sponsored adult attendance is up 195 percent. Services offered by Alamance Libraries outside the buildings themselves are way up for adults and juveniles. Total non-print use is up 52 percent.
And in a shocking development, use of periodicals – you know, newspapers, magazines, and other print publications most consider deader than fried bologna – is up 16 percent.
Newspapers, by the way, should not take that number as a sign to stay the course.
Dr. Chow is still in the process of compiling a more complete survey of library users in Alamance County. They have conducted focus groups, community forums and a survey. He still hopes to get more people involved in the Q&A in order to nail down solid numbers going forward. But what we know so far is that people are interested in a different way of viewing a library’s role in the community. People want meeting space, wi-fi hot spots in rural areas, a mobile app, more web-based options, programs focusing on lifestyles or self-help, book clubs, appearances by authors, discussion groups, writing workshops, programs on different languages and cultures, and even a place to get coffee. Oh yeah, and they want more parking at the main branch, May Memorial in downtown Burlington.
In short, they see the library as a resource and a hub – a gathering point for knowledge, ideas and community involvement.
Can it happen? Some of it certainly can. Friends of the Library is raising money for a bookmobile that would provide programs, wi-fi and outreach were no physical structures exist. As for the rest, well funding will be a major challenge. Over the next few months our group will study what can and can’t be done and prioritize. Our meetings in February and March will be longer as we hammer out a future. I think we all understand that while money is tight, altering a culture or a way of doing business are also critical. Those things are on us.
The good news is, that while newspapers were too stodgy and stuck in their ways to do something about necessary changes, libraries are not. Newspaper leaders never fully understood the range of services they could provide in this new landscape. I know because I was there and equally short-sighted. Libraries actually do seem to get it. One example of the possibilities ahead can be seen at Slover Library, a public facility in Virginia. We’re taking a field trip there as part of our research. We can’t copy what they have done because money is tight, but the visit can certainly spark ideas.
And this is what we need most going forward, ideas.