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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

January 29, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Libraries in the digital age: Do you know what yours offers?

Members of the largest and oldest library association in America — the American Library Association — are meeting this week in downtown Seattle.

They’re asking some tough questions.

“In order to create real change, we will need to deepen and go beyond historical relationships, rethink how we leverage technology to best serve readers, and even shift paradigms — for instance, from repository to creator,” ALA President Maureen Sullivan wrote in a letter to members ahead of the association’s midwinter meeting. “There is no doubt that ‘transformation’ is the right frame of reference for the work before us.”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project just released the latest in a set of library use studies funded at least in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The first, out last summer, examined the state of e-book borrowing. The results: Patrons appreciate it, but access is low, selection is small, and 60 percent of Americans 16 or older couldn’t say whether their libraries even offered e-books for lending.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet project, presented the findings of another Pew reports at the ALA meeting here this week. Its findings were somewhat sunnier. Library patrons want to see digital services expand, but still value traditional library offerings — including the persistence of print. It’s a good, detailed study.

A pair of figures stood out to me.

91 percent of people say libraries are important to their communities, but only 22 percent say they know most or all of what their libraries offer. About a third know little or nothing at all.

That gets my attention because I can relate. Seattle libraries are award-winning. I’ve seen releases and stories about the neat things they’re doing, but I’ve never been to my neighborhood branch (I’ve lived in northeast Seattle for a year and a half), and every time I’ve been to the central library since 2009 it’s been either to attend an event or conduct an interview.

I don’t pretend to represent the average American, the average Seattleite, or even the average Seattleite with broadband access and a smartphone. But this still leads me to ask: How much of libraries’ digital crisis is an awareness crisis?

So I’ll ask you this same question, extremely unscientifically. Seattle libraries have been updating their services for years now. Do you know what’s on offer? Answer the poll above and let us know.

Just for fun, here’s an infographic with more report results.

Read up on ALA speaker Caroline Kennedy’s remarks here.

Seen a story that caught your eye re: digital life? Email me at or reach me on Twitter or Facebook.

Comments | More in Disruption, Habits, Seattle


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