2009-01-22 / Front Page

Could Internet Access Replace Community and School Libraries?

Those Who Think So Don't Understand Libraries, Local Librarians Say
By Ellen Paquin

Librarian Cindy Patten pauses in her work in the brightly sunlit main reading room of the St. Ignace Public Library. Built in 2005, the library offers 7,000 square feet of space, including a community meeting room. Its design, contributed by architect A. Richard Williams of St. Ignace and Arizona, is marked by a clerestory at the peak of a northern white cedar ceiling, large windows overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, and natural oak-finished stacks and furniture. All of the library's computer kiosks were in use that afternoon, Thursday, January 15. Librarian Cindy Patten pauses in her work in the brightly sunlit main reading room of the St. Ignace Public Library. Built in 2005, the library offers 7,000 square feet of space, including a community meeting room. Its design, contributed by architect A. Richard Williams of St. Ignace and Arizona, is marked by a clerestory at the peak of a northern white cedar ceiling, large windows overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, and natural oak-finished stacks and furniture. All of the library's computer kiosks were in use that afternoon, Thursday, January 15. Regional Trends - Libraries

A story in The St. Ignace News' ongoing series bringing our readers fresh perspectives on the top issues facing the Straits area and the Eastern Upper Peninsula.

Library use today is on the rise, partly because libraries are evolving with their communities and now offer more services than ever. Even easy access to Internet research at home - considered a threat to school and community libraries by some - will probably never compare to what's offered at the local library, said Nancy Robertson, Michigan's state librarian.

Kelly Harman (right) plays a game with three of her children, Sam, Emma, and John, at the Les Cheneaux Community Library in Cedarville. The library has a large of selection of board games available for use. Kelly Harman (right) plays a game with three of her children, Sam, Emma, and John, at the Les Cheneaux Community Library in Cedarville. The library has a large of selection of board games available for use. More than a mere collection of books, she says, a library actually brings to life a much broader concept: It's the warehouse for a society's verified information, a gathering place for people who want to learn from that information, and even a system for searching, retrieving, and evaluating it. Community and school libraries are now fulfilling that broader, more dynamic definition in ways that librarians of just 20 years ago wouldn't have imagined, adding new media tools, community programming, and new ways to share materials.

People who see the library as a "book collection" have questioned whether they may become outdated, even obsolete, now that so much information can be found online, but Ms. Robertson and other librarians consider that viewpoint shortsighted. She points out that traditional library research gets higher marks for accuracy and reliability, and offers the researcher an expert assistant at hand - the librarian.

John and Peter Harman (from left) read by the fireplace at the Les Cheneaux Community Library. John and Peter Harman (from left) read by the fireplace at the Les Cheneaux Community Library. For schools, good libraries have even been linked by research to higher test scores and better grades for students, she pointed out. More than 60 studies in 19 states across the U.S. have shown a correlation between strong school libraries and a school district's academic achievement.

"Libraries are still about the books - but that is not all that libraries are about," Ms. Robertson said. "In talking about books versus online [research] resources, without the library or the librarian, there isn't a way to organize the information, find it, and evaluate its importance. A lot of what's online isn't usable or fully accessible, and you often don't know the information source for materials posted online.

"Libraries have spent hundreds of years bothering to be the ones to determine what is useful information for people. That's our responsibility."

At the Library of Michigan, Ms. Robertson heads a service that offers resources for librarians as well as a public library for the people of the state.

She sees a community library as a storehouse for the information that society deems important, that has been expertly evaluated and verified, and she contrasts this with the wide range of information available on the Internet - much of it not evaluated, unverified, and written and submitted anonymously.

She gives the example of a middle school student searching the Internet for facts for a school report: How will he be sure that the information he's relying on wasn't written by another middle school student?

To help make sure people can find solid information online, the Library of Michigan has posted its own recommended collection of reference material there, called the Michigan e-Library.

"This is an online set of collections that librarians have selected, and purchased this information for all of the people of the state," Ms. Robertson said. It's available at www.MeL.org.

Librarians play a role in education by helping teachers select curriculum materials, she pointed out, and the Web site has a feature that allows teachers to search by content to find teaching materials.

Library patronage, on the whole, is up, Ms. Robertson said.

"Public library cardholders outnumber Amazon.com customers five to one," she said.

At some rural community libraries, the free high speed Internet access is almost as popular as the books in drawing patrons in the door. In St. Ignace, eight public computers are getting a lot of play; they were used 13,000 times during the 23,691 library visits counted in 2007. In one Pew survey, it was the technology-savvy young adults (ages 18 to 30) who led all ages of library users. Libraries were visited by more than half (53%) of Americans in 2007 for all kinds of purposes, the study shows.

"People think kids don't read

anymore, and that's not true."

One of the original purposes of the library remains as strong as ever: People are still reading for information and entertainment.

"People think kids don't read anymore, and that's not true," said Cindy Patten, librarian at the St. Ignace Public Library, who said book clubs for fifth through eighth grades have been popular here. She can't keep the "Twilight" book series for teens on the shelf, and "preschool picture books are always popular" at the checkout desk. Bestseller fiction tops the list of what St. Ignace library patrons are reading, followed closely by bestseller nonfiction.

"Light mysteries like those by Janet Ivanovich are always good," Ms. Patten said. "I do try to get the current bestsellers."

A program growing in the last five years is the inter-library loan, which opens a patron's access to books not found locally. Any participating library in the country can be tapped for materials.

"People sometimes think we may not have things, but we can almost always get anything they want," Ms. Patten said. "For example, we had an early 1900s genealogy book from Oregon mailed here to the St. Ignace library by request two weeks ago."

There is no charge for the service.

The library enjoyed a surge in patronage when it moved from Spring Street to the new facility on Spruce in 2005, when 400 new library cards were issued. And use is still growing; 241 new cards were issued last year.

St. Ignace library patrons will be able to download audio books to MP3 players beginning in late February.

"Libraries really make an effort to stay current with technology," Ms. Patten said.

At Cedarville, "new books are the biggest draw at our library," said librarian Ronda McGreevy at Les Cheneaux Community Library. "We have a lot of very avid readers."

Popular with Les Cheneaux readers are mystery thrillers such as those by David Baldacci, literary fiction like Louise Erdrich's "Plague of Doves," and also light fiction such as "Marley and Me."

The library has added to its DVD movie collection and has seen use triple since July, she said. Over the past year, 1,461 DVDs were rented, 500 more than the previous year. One-week DVD rentals are offered for $2. Anyone in Mackinac or Chippewa counties can have a library card at the Cedarville library, and the movie rental program is popular with those who only visit the library once a week.

"Our computer lab is a very big part of what we do, and wireless use has more than doubled over 2007," Mrs. McGreevy said. Numbers combined for wireless users on their own laptops and those using public computers total 6,290 people in 2008, which is 1,500 more than 2007.

The computer lab's 11 computers will be replaced with new ones in the coming weeks through a grant secured by the Friends of the Library and the Noyes Foundation.

Library use, on the whole, is also growing in Cedarville.

In 2008, 10,013 books were checked out, about 1,000 more than previous year, and 414 new library cards were issued.

"People are discovering us, and it's cool," said library clerk Jane French of the facility built five years ago. Built with private donations, it's furnished with a fireplace and comfortable furniture. "Word of mouth is doing a lot for us."

Like Ms. Patten at the St. Ignace library, Mrs. McGreevy said young people are heavy library users in Cedarville.

"We certainly have a strong presence of kids after school," Mrs. McGreevy said, mentioning tutoring sessions at the library twice weekly, as well as a Saturday morning children's reading program. A youth book club organized by the library in partnership with the school district is in its third year and has more than 20 young members. They keep track of book selections through a Web site.

Books also remain the biggest draw for people using Bayliss Library in Sault Ste. Marie and its branches, said Director Ken Miller.

"Seventy percent of our business is books," he said.

"The library as the community

center is going to snowball."

The libraries in Cedarville and St. Ignace have each become a gathering place for local groups. This is one way many libraries have reinvented their role in their communities, state librarian Ms. Robertson said.

At St. Ignace, 82 library programs used the community room in the past year, with 113 meetings by outside groups. Monthly movie nights and talks by visiting authors have been popular programs in St. Ignace.

In Sault Ste. Marie, programming has become so popular that the library's meeting room - converted into staff offices in recent years - has been turned back into a community room to meet demand.

Bringing in local authors as speakers, a poetry cafe, and a writers' group have been well attended programs, said Mr. Miller. A special committee has been formed to organize programs.

"Programming can be very successful and you can do it on a shoestring," said Mr. Miller, who has 35 years of experience with libraries, mostly in the Detroit area. "This has brought a lot of people into the library. We're doing a lot of different things to make the library a community center," including bulk-mailing a newsletter to 2,000 people in the area.

At Cedarville, members of a quilting guild regularly bring their sewing machines to the library to work on projects together, and an antique collectors' group meets there, too.

Teen night has been a very popular program at Cedarville for the past year, but will not be continued in 2009 unless a funding source can be found, Mrs. McGreevy said. In 2008, it was paid for by a Community Foundation grant and a private donation. Video games and other activities were offered on teen nights, but she observed the most popular draw for the young people was traditional board games.

More programming will be planned at Les Cheneaux, Mrs. McGreevy said. Funds are being sought to offer a summer film festival and various summer arts camps there.

This trend will continue for libraries in Michigan, Ms. Robertson agrees.

"The library as the community center is going to snowball," she said. "With resources dwindling, libraries are where people have already pooled their resources, and they will continue to be invested there."

"Here were people who wanted

their community library."

At all five branches of Bayliss Library in Cedarville, Moran, Engadine, Curtis, and Drummond Island, Mr. Miller said books and computer use combined are drawing patrons in the door as much as ever.

Two of those branches - Curtis and Cedarville - have sometimes struggled to handle the surge in traffic driven by computer use, he noted.

The Drummond Island library is "a little quieter," while in Moran, "the biggest challenge is staying open. It's a matter of resources."

Last summer, that library's budget shortfall meant hours would have to be cut, and Mr. Miller attended the Brevort Township Board of Trustees meeting to discuss the issue. The library had a shortfall of about $1,700, he said, and by the end of that meeting, several hundred dollars had been donated by people attending.

"They wanted their library, and they kept it," Mr. Miller said. "It was one of those things that was unexpected. Here were people who wanted their community library."

It counters the argument that libraries may someday be made obsolete by the Internet.

"People who say that may be ignorant of what libraries are, and what the Internet is," Mr. Miller said. "I have people here at Bayliss who are highly trained Internet searchers. One thing that can be difficult to judge online is an item's veracity, it's truthfulness. We can help people learn to judge the veracity of an Internet site. We do that all the time. Every library you talk to will do that for people."

And for those who think a library is just a collection of books, Mr. Miller invites them to Bayliss: "Come here, and we will knock your socks off."

Biggest Challenge Is Funding, Librarians Say

Librarians agree that the biggest challenge facing local libraries today is funding.

Libraries are funded, in part, by penal fines, and with people driving less than ever in these difficult economic times, penal fines are down and library revenues are down, Cedarville librarian Ronda McGreevy noted.

In Mackinac County, penal fine revenues were down 12% last year, reported Ken Miller, Bayliss Library director.

"State aid to libraries has gone down, so our revenues are down," said Cindy Patten at the St. Ignace Public Library.

Many libraries pursue grants to pay for special programs, and have developed Friends of the Library groups for fundraising support.

Donations to community libraries are always welcome, Mrs. McGreevy noted, and information about donating can be obtained at the circulation desk.

Historical Collection Improvements Planned at Bayliss Library

Staff at Bayliss Library in Sault Ste. Marie want to enhance the archives of its historical collection.

The archives house original documents of the American Fur Company, John Johnston, and Henry Schoolcraft papers, which are important to Michigan history. One thousand glass negatives of the building of the electricity canal, several hundred photographs of old Fort Brady in Sault Ste. Marie, and photographs of early Sault Ste. Marie are also in the collection.

The library is seeking funding to digitize the materials so they can be more safely handled by the public.

"We have interesting things you would not expect in a library this size," said Director Ken Miller. "We have a lot of people coming here for historical research. We have to be careful how historical things are handled, but we do want to get them out for people to see. The collections are open to the public."

Local Libraries Join Superiorland

The Hiawathaland Library Cooperative was closed January 1, and all Upper Peninsula libraries have now joined the Superiorland Library Cooperative, covering the whole U.P., reported Ken Miller, director of Bayliss Library. The move will offer better pricing for libraries for staff training and materials, he said.

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