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Mónica Guzmán

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

February 2, 2013 at 9:22 PM

Libraries seek frame of digital reference

Last week I did something I haven’t done in years.

I went to my neighborhood library.

I know how that sounds to many of you. I go to the library every week! Plenty of people go. Plenty of people don’t. I assumed the biggest difference was interest. But what if, for some, it’s awareness?

The Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library was the long, low building I drove by on 35th Avenue Northeast until I walked through its doors Tuesday. I got my Seattle library card when I moved here in 2007 and haven’t used it since.

Do I even know what’s here anymore?

The future is uncertain for libraries, as it is for a lot of things. Music. Movies. Media. Technology has shaken them all.

But libraries are ours. They’re here to serve us, and while they’re still figuring out what that means, they’re fighting for the right. Sparring with the likes of Amazon.com and Google. Upgrading with the help of funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the biggest benefactors of libraries nationwide, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which last week announced $1.35 million in grants to Northwest libraries. They’re facing tough questions from all sides. If adequately serving people in both digital and analog ways takes more, costs more, can they pay?
Or rather, can we?

For a public institution, it’s too private a struggle, dissected at gatherings like last week’s Seattle meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) and described in technological terms that hide the deeper shift beneath. Libraries gave you access to information you couldn’t find anywhere else. Now you can. So whom do they serve? The information-poor? The information-rich? Everyone? How?

An institution unused to change is moving fast to get acquainted, especially here, but make no mistake: For libraries as a whole, this is a crisis of purpose.

The Gates Foundation is funding new research into libraries by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project, met me at a Starbucks as he prepared to present the results of his latest report to the ALA.

To him, libraries’ existential moment is not just about purpose, but scope. What we think of as information and knowledge have new definitions in a digital world. How much of the increasingly complex information ecosystem will libraries claim for their free, publicly accessible channels? What parts of that ecosystem will they let go?
The quality of civic life may depend on the answer, particularly for the millions who rely on libraries to be their link to a buzzing, connected world.

When I was younger I knew what my library had. Books and references. Now I’m not so sure. That’s consistent with one of the findings in the Pew report. Just 22 percent of Americans say they know most or all of the services their libraries offer. About a third said they know not much or nothing at all.

Last month my husband, Jason, realized he needed to read a book for work. He didn’t want to buy it, so he went to the library’s website to look it up. I was surprised he made it that far. In the past the books he’s looked up have been at the Central Library downtown — out of reach as far as he’s concerned. Used books on Amazon can cost a couple bucks and ship in a couple days. “With the amount I’d pay to park, I might as well just buy it,” he told me.

The library had the book he needed, but its location didn’t matter: They had the e-book version. Jason got it. He, like me, has used a Kindle reader for years, but never bothered to look for e-books at the library. Until he stumbled on one, he didn’t know the library carried them. That’s consistent with broader findings, too. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed last year couldn’t say whether their libraries carried e-books.

There’s little question Seattle values its libraries. Voters just approved a $122 million levy to expand hours, materials, and services after four years of budget cuts. This despite our tech savvy, or maybe because of it. We’re a curious and collaborative city. Information and community are values. Innovation is a way of life. I asked Seattleites on Facebook what they knew of our libraries’ services. Many of the geekiest knew a lot.
Guess I’d better catch up.

I walked around the Northeast Branch, saw the space, the books and the sofas. I found a seat by a big window that let in light from a drizzly day and pulled out my laptop. Today I would write. Next time, who knows?
Moments earlier I had tweeted that I’d be here for the first time today. The Seattle library tweeted back. “We’ll surprise you yet!” it said.

I expect nothing less.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Update: A couple of you have pointed out a library service I didn’t mention that is relevant to the column: the library will ship books to your neighborhood library from another location. The back story on that here.

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