The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 13, 2014

Libraries not just about the screens

Why it matters: As digital technology grows, libraries must decide what kind of materials to buy.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — One thing that’s wonderful about most public libraries is the variety of materials they offer to a variety of people. If you like books, they have books. If you like newspapers and magazines, they have them. If you like audio books, they have those. If you like e-books, they’re readily available, too.

You get the picture; whatever medium delivers words, libraries do their best to deliver.

That’s why it’s jarring to think the library of the future will be digital only. No cracking open a new book and smelling its intoxicating fresh ink and flipping its smooth pages. No crinkling the pages of a newspaper, eagerly looking for the comics or the photo of your nephew playing in Saturday’s basketball game. No wrestling with the unabridged monster dictionary to discover new words you weren’t even looking up.

Instead, if library planners follow the lead of a first-of-its-kind public library in Texas, library users will all be starring at screens to get all their information and entertainment. The all-electronic library in Bexar County isn’t even called a library; it’s a BiblioTech. It is the first bookless public library system in the country, according to information gathered by the American Library Association.

So iPads, iMacs and electronic tablets fill the BiblioTech. It must be a modern, exciting place to visit. Kids, of course, are familiar with new gadgets and will flock to the place. Except, here’s the thing. If you visit an inner-city library and check out what kids are doing on computers, there’s a good chance they aren’t reading articles or essays they’ve Googled. They’re playing video games for as long as the library allows them the time on the computer.

And yes, some young kids have learned how to read books on electronic tablets, but cuddling up to mom or dad in a big cushy library chair to look at a screen together falls short of flipping the pages of a colorful big picture book. You don’t have to be a Luddite to mourn what we would lose by giving up a variety of reading materials.

The best strategy seems to be to embrace and accept new technology while simultaneously offering the standbys that have their own value and appeal to a big chunk of the library-using population. It’s not just a portion of elderly that prefer books to e-tablets. One teenager at the new BiblioTech said she kind of missed the books and that using electronic tablets hurt her eyes. A new study released last week revealed nearly 70 percent of American adults experience eye strain caused by computers, tablets and smartphones.

The North Mankato Taylor Library realizes balance is the key. The library is often the first in the area to get new technology while keeping up on the current versions of more traditional materials. Now the library, with the support of donations, will be getting a new used bookmobile to serve residents who can’t make regular trips to the library, such as day cares, senior-living centers and private schools.

And here’s the topper: The bookmobile will have a public computer with Internet access.