What is the Role of a 21st Century Library?
It’s National Library Week. But what should a library be in the internet age?
Ever since National Library Week was first sponsored in 1958, the annual observance has been a time for libraries around the country to refocus on connecting with residents, reminding them of the value libraries bring to their communities.
This year is no different, but, for the Evanston Public Library, that means highlighting its digital and technology-based offerings, as well as teaching residents how to access these options with a weeklong “Connect @ Your Library, Virtually” theme.
Digital mediums have been present in libraries for nearly two decades, said Lesley Williams, manager of the library’s adult services department. But now, electronic offerings can increasingly be accessed remotely.
“You can be on a sailboat near Timbuktu,” Williams said, “and as long as you have wireless access and a library card, you can access [the library’s digital offerings].”
Residents with a library card can use the EPL website as a portal to read nearly 300 library-owned digitized reference books -- including encyclopedias containing numerous volumes -- from the comfort of their homes. Those who own e-readers can check out any of the thousands of e-books the library has added to its collection.
Additionally, the library offers free online access to a number of educational websites, including Mango Languages (an online language learning system that uses self-paced instruction to teach 38 different languages), Brainfuse (a tutoring and homework help program for elementary through high school students) and LearnATest (a test preparation website that offers instruction and timed practice exams for the ACT, SAT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GED and more).
But as residents increasingly access library materials without stepping foot in a library building, it begs the question: what purpose do libraries serve in a digital age?
According to Williams, no matter the medium or mode of access, the role of a library remains constant.
“I think there are a lot of different possibilities [today], but I don’t think the role of a library is actually changing that much,” Williams said. “The role of a library was never really just to provide physical objects, but instead to provide access to information and literature, and to say as a community that we believe in investing in education and informational services for the public.”
Williams said she thinks that both buildings and staff will remain relevant as libraries digitize.
Librarians who once helped people find books will be needed to teach patrons how to access new programs and direct them to appropriate sources, she said.
Instead of housing thousands of books, libraries may only play the role of a community center and meetings space -- someplace that will continue to provide programming, show films, supplement formal education and act as a public forum.
Additionally, until a day comes when internet access is free or universal, library buildings will remain essential for some.
“This year we’re focusing on the online connections…but it’s not that we’re abandoning those other functions,” Williams said. “We just wanted to emphasize that you can reach out to your library even if you’re not in the library.”
National Library Week lasts from April 8-14. Click here to view a list of Evanston Public Library’s “Connect @ Your Library, Virtually” programs.