More than a Kindle

March 28, 2014 | 11:13 am

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Bob Pasicznyuk has heard the questions before. The ones about public libraries remaining relevant institutions in a digital age that has allowed people to put piles of books in their pocket.

“One (City Council) candidate told me, for $40 million, he could put a Kindle in the hands of everybody in town,” said Pasicznyuk, director the Cedar Rapids Public Library. A new, $44 million downtown central library is expected to open in August, a project that has stirred a fair amount of local debate in recent years.

“My remark back was how long do you think the Kindles that you’re going to buy are viable? The candidate told me two or three years. I said, do you think that’s a business plan?

“I understand this, every single business has to look at how their business plan works with modern tech,” Pasicznyuk said. “And libraries are no different. You can get an online degree from a number of sources, and yet no one’s suggesting the University of Iowa should shut its doors.”

RELIC OR VITAL ASSET?

These questions will keep coming. The library is moving into a new home for its popular west-side branch later this month. The new central library arrives this summer. And it’s likely that members of the library’s board of directors will soon be asking voters to increase the library’s current 4-cent property tax levy for materials to help cover rising operational costs.

So are we pumping dollars into a bygone relic or a vital asset that remains important to this community’s future? Libraries are certainly not the only institutions wrestling with that question. If you’re reading this in the newspaper, you’re holding the product of one in your hands.

We believe libraries will remain important, useful and relevant, so long as they engage in a continuous conversation with the communities they serve. What does the public want and need from its public libraries? It’s a question library leaders should never stop asking.

Mary Wegner, Iowa’s state librarian, says libraries must be information and technology navigators, story tellers and the keepers of a venue for community collaboration. “None of which happens when you buy everybody a Kindle,” Wegner said.

PUBLIC SUPPORT

Ask Americans if libraries are still important, most will say yes. A survey of Americans age 16 and older released last month by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 91 percent believe libraries are important to their communities. Seventy-six percent said they are important to them personally and their families, and 80 percent say traditional book-borrowing is a “very important” service. Support for libraries is even higher among Hispanic and African-American respondents.

In Iowa, Wegner said there are 2,036,382 active library cards in a state with a population of just more than 3 million people. During the last fiscal year, “door count” admissions to public libraries in Iowa topped 19.3 million. She said those numbers have remained largely steady.

“But this does not mean that it is easy for libraries to meet the demands of their communities in our increasingly digital information environment,” wrote Jessica Dorr, deputy director of the global libraries program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, on the foundation’s website about the Pew survey’s findings.

“Library users have new expectations and needs: around a third of Americans say they would be very likely to use services like online reference chats with librarians, programs that allowed them to try new digital devices and learn new digital skills, and app-based access to library materials and services,” Dorr wrote. “How librarians embrace new tools and technology and adjust to meet user expectations, especially under the constraints of limited budgets, is paramount to the very future, not just of libraries across our nation, but to the communities they serve as well.”

YOUTH PRIORITY

Pasicznyuk says planners here have listened to residents, stakeholder panels and others who have provided lots of information on what they want from libraries.

Children’s and youth literacy are a major priority, which is why the youth-focused space in the new central library will be 15,000 square feet, compared to the 8,000 square feet in the previous library that flooded in 2008. It will include computers, both PCs and “tactile” units. The library has forged partnerships with local educational and children’s service organizations, including Grant Wood AEA, the Parent Education Consortium and Hawkeye Area Community Action. Teens get their own unique section, with a sophisticated coffee shop vibe.

“It’s a place where they’ve got every book they’d ever want, but there’s an awful lot of items that they have at their finger tips more than books,” Pasicznyuk said.

One third of the library’s 94,000 square feet of space is devoted to what he calls civic and creative spaces, including meeting rooms, a conference center for businesses and non-profits and a 200-seat auditorium. There will be 80 computers for public use, free Wi-Fi extending outside the building and a 13-computer classroom where partner organizations will provide various types of instruction.

More than $200,000 is being spent on providing e-books, including readers that will be available for borrowing. Wegner said national library organizations are making progress in negotiations with publishers, more of which have been reluctant to give libraries access to electronic tittles, or have made them available under prohibitive prices and use terms.

DELIVER THE MESSAGE

The Pew survey found that just 22 percent of respondents said they know all or most of the services offered by their local library. So Pasicznyuk and other local library leaders must do a better job locally of getting out that message, and also that the community can have an effect on what services are offered.

“We need to have processes to listen to folks, to say what hit the mark, what didn’t hit the mark at all and respond to it,” Pasicznyuk said.

We support that approach. And that kind of collaboration holds the key to the library’s quest for adequate resources and its future. Technology will change, but libraries that remain focused on the needs of their communities will remain irreplaceable.

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