Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles focusing on the changing role of information technology in various sectors of Addison County life.
The series looks beyond the push for universal broadband, asking how Internet access and the advances of technology is changing life in Addison County. It stems from the discussions of a regional technology plan being worked on by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. The plan will be one of 11 regional technology plans offered to the state to help define next steps and needs in the various sectors. We welcome your responses and thoughts on the article or on technology in general, which will help the team incorporate as many viewpoints as possible into the plan.
ADDISON COUNTY — The Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury has stacks full of nearly 72,000 paper books, 5,000 recorded audiobooks, and 3,876 videos and DVDs.
But in a sign of changing times, the library offers downloadable audiobooks and e-books through its website, its 20 public access computers are nearly always in use, and signs at the checkout desk offer a handful of e-readers and MP3 players to try out.
As the largest library in Addison County — serving residents of the town of Middlebury, students enrolled in Addison Central Supervisory Union schools and Middlebury College students — Ilsley Library makes an effort to follow the latest technology. Its catalog is digital, accessible from anywhere in the world on the web, and it offers patrons access to a variety of online databases and learning resources.
As it becomes easier for people to click a button from their home computers and find page upon page of search results on any given topic, Ilsley adult services librarian Chris Kirby said evolving and re-imagining the library’s role in the community is key.
“There is a real concern about how we maintain our relevance as more people rely on Google for information,” said Kirby.
The demands on libraries are clearly changing, and this is true for all 13 public libraries in Addison County. State Librarian Martha Reid, who heads the Vermont Department of Libraries, said though actual visits to libraries in Vermont decreased by 1 percent last year, computer usage went up by 11 percent, with 18,372 sessions per week at public libraries across the state.
Reid said responding to changing demands is at the forefront for all libraries in the state.
“It’s a really interesting time to be a librarian because things are changing so fast,” said Reid. “Thirty years ago there was no Internet, and we were doing reference work for people.”
Now, patrons are demanding audiobooks and e-books, and Kirby said that while print circulation is still strong, digital offerings have proven popular with travelers, commuters and people with impaired vision since e-readers offer adjustable font sizes. Kirby said the demand for web services like audiobooks and e-books is actually outpacing what the library can provide.
“We don’t have enough content to keep up with demand,” said Kirby, who also serves on the regional technology team through the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.
Ilsley Public Library offers its downloadable content through the Green Mountain Library Consortium, a group that now includes more than 140 libraries across the state. The consortium was formed in 2008 to enable libraries across the state to provide Internet-based audiobook and e-book services; libraries pay member fees depending on the size of their membership.
Kirby said the database is limited by the fact that most of the content can be used by only one user at a time among library patrons within the Green Mountain Library Consortium, and some publications can only be taken out a limited number of times per year.
A TEACHING ROLE
In addition to digital offerings, many libraries are also focusing on technology training.
“What we do see as a growing role for libraries is digital literacy — helping people to discern what information is valid, and to differentiate between opinion and fact,” Reid said.
And it’s not just digital literacy and research skills that fill a gap for Vermonters. It’s also basic computer skills that libraries can — and are — teaching.
“There’s a need for widespread computer training for Vermont citizens,” she said. “A lot of people are falling through the cracks, either because they don’t know that it’s available or because they don’t have transportation.”
Increasingly, said Reid, familiarity with a computer is a required job skill, and people must use the Internet to find and apply for jobs. Information on and access to applications for insurance and government benefits are handled through the web, and resources like the Skype videoconferencing service and email can also be key communication tools for senior citizens whose families have scattered to far away places.
Kirby said he and the rest of the staff at the Ilsley do see demand for computer training, and accordingly the Ilsley Library offers technology workshops ranging from using Facebook to setting up an email account to finding grant opportunities online.
“Training is a really critical part of our role,” he said. “There are many community members who are new to but interested in emerging technology.”
Rachel Plant, head librarian at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes, said that her facility doesn’t have as much public access technology — right now the Bixby has three computers available to the public — but her staff and volunteers do help patrons in a less formal way.
“We don’t necessarily have (technology) workshops,” she said.
Instead, her staff will take the time to help a patron set up an email account or answer a question online. Plant added that, as part of this year’s e-Vermont Community Broadband Project grant cycle, the Bixby will be purchasing equipment to fill out its technology offerings. Plant said she’s hoping to get in some e-readers as part of that grant so that patrons can experiment and learn to use them.
But Reid said before librarians can provide digital literacy training for patrons, they themselves must be proficient in technology and web research. In addition to its other administrative roles, her department increasingly provides technology support services for Vermont’s 183 public libraries — everything from helping libraries transition from card catalogs to automated systems to providing technology training to librarians. Right now, the department is helping the Bixby library through the final stages of digitizing its card catalog.
And since no Vermont institutions offer a masters program in Library Science, Reid’s department also administers a certification program for Vermont librarians, which includes technology training.
Right now, said Reid, the department is also working on a number of broadband projects that will route federal money toward new hardware for libraries, from desktop and laptop computers to printers, scanners and e-readers.
Come this fall, the department will also offer a program called “Universal Class” to libraries across the state. Reid said library patrons will be able to take self-paced, instructor-guided online classes ranging from African hair braiding to nursing certification courses — all for free.
Reid said the push to adopt new technologies can be taxing, especially for the staff of small libraries.
“One of the challenges is that we’re doing new stuff, but we’re also doing early childhood literacy, checking out books — everything we used to do,” she said. “We’re asking a lot of our librarians.”
To Reid, community libraries have a bright future, and her department is there to make sure that even the smallest libraries are able to offer a full menu of services.
“The question is how can we help local libraries position themselves for this half of the 21st century?” she said.
Reid said the coming years won’t just bring new developments in what libraries offer — they’ll bring a re-imagining of what physical library buildings can offer to their communities.
“Lots of library users are using the library from home,” she said. “They download e-books, audiobooks, access databases. They’ve used their library card but they’ve never left their living room.”
For Kirby, however, there’s something to be said for keeping the old technologies as active as the new.
“We’ve stopped buying cassettes and VHS, but we still actively buy CDs and print materials,” he said. “I’m still committed to print, and there’s still a demand.”
Reid agreed. She expects that people will still choose print for pleasure reading for a long time to come, despite changes in the research and information fields.
And as that happens, libraries themselves will change.
“The buildings won’t use as much space for books in the future,” she said. “People will want to use their library more for community gathering places, for making connections. Instead of going to the library to get content, you go to the library to create content. People will be creating audio, video, writing, and putting that content out to the world.”
One thing Reid is sure of, though — libraries will still feature prominently in their communities.
“Libraries have always been the learning hub in the community, and they still are,” she said. “The way we learn just looks different.”
To comment on this article or the series in general, or to suggest a topic for an upcoming article, email Andrea Suozzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.