Libraries are about more than just books these days, and that’s exactly how it should be as patrons increasingly need to access and understand digital tools in their daily lives.
Innovative libraries all over the country are looking to introduce new technologies through classes or “petting zoos” that offer hands-on access to new technologies, such as tablets or smartphones, in order to better serve their communities. Not only do these programs serve as an introduction to new technology for older patrons, younger generations are also engaging more with their local libraries as they seek to take advantage of these resources.
But there’s also a survival element to technology adoption. Libraries that refuse to cater to the new kind of patron — one that expects the library to have Wi-Fi, charging ports and the ability to access digital content such as ebooks or audiobooks — are bound to suffer, explains David Lee King, digital services director at Topeka and Shawnee County (Kans.) Public Library.
“Libraries need to figure out how to serve this new subset of their customer base. If we aren’t successful in making this technology transition, patrons who have transitioned already will simply bypass the library by finding answers (though not always the best ones) through Google, purchasing books through Amazon, or downloading music from iTunes,” King writes in a blog post on American Libraries.
King recently led the Topeka and Shawnee Public Library through a digital transformation that revamped the library’s underlying infrastructure to support new services, speedier checkouts and more consistent computer experiences for patrons.
King knows as well as anyone that the impact of a revamped library infrastructure serves more than just the younger generations.
“Technology affects our traditional users too,” King writes in the blog post. “The books, magazines, and newspapers they love to read are moving to digital formats. Library staff must be ready to help these customers find their news and entertainment sources in online and digital formats.”
Which emerging technologies should libraries consider? Here are a few to get you started.
1. Videoconferencing Connects Library Patrons with Family
In many respects, communication has moved beyond email or phone calls. Videoconferencing through Skype, Google Hangouts or other services is becoming the preferred way for people to connect. Libraries that have robust Wi-Fi and hardware should consider adopting videoconferencing to help patrons conduct business meetings, job interviews and interact with family and friends.
A prime example of videoconferencing in action is at the New York Public Library system, which adopted Cisco’s TelePresence videoconferencing technology running on CDW’s hosted cloud-based Video Registration system to allow patrons video visitation with incarcerated family members at Riker’s Island. The program expanded to 22 branch libraries after a successful pilot of the technology at the Brooklyn Public Library.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito tells New York Daily News that the program makes a huge difference to families and inmates, particularly since inmates that stay in touch with their families while in prison are less likely to commit crimes when released. "This expansion will not only decrease the burden on families but should also help reduce recidivism," she says.
2. Makerspaces Give Library Patrons Hands-On Tech Experience
As patrons increasingly turn to libraries to experiment with new technologies, libraries can meet their needs by offering makerspaces, which provide access to tech such as 3D printers, scanners and computer-aided design (CAD) software.
“The goal [of a makerspace] is to empower patrons to engage in hands-on, interdisciplinary learning that can lead to the discovery of new knowledge and interests, the initiation of new research, or entrepreneurial activities,” states the Horizon Report 2017: Library Edition, which encourages libraries to adapt to the future by offering access to new tools and technologies.
The report highlights that many libraries are already well ahead of these efforts, as 64 percent of respondents in a recent survey said they were “engaged in providing, planning, or piloting makerspace services.”
3. VR Gives Underserved Communities a Leg Up in Tech
If you thought that augmented and virtual reality were only for video games, think again. Understanding this technology is increasingly important as it enters everything from the healthcare field to tourism. Many libraries now offer classes or programs that allow patrons to learn how to use and design for these new mediums.
In California, for example, the state has made moves to bring VR programs to libraries in a statewide pilot program that aims to test the technology with patrons in underserved communities.
“The goal for the statewide project was to offer public libraries representing a range of types and geographies a chance to test this relatively new technology with their patrons,” Janet Coles, assistant bureau chief, Library Development Services Bureau, California State Library, tells American Libraries. Thanks to donations of Vive headgear from HTC as well as Oculus headsets, libraries across the state were able to kick off the statewide program and offer opportunities to those who would not have the technology available to them otherwise.
“A specific goal was for our community to get experiences it would not get on its own. The equipment and content is expensive and is mainly purchased by tech-savvy consumers. Our project made it accessible to multiple ages and in multiple venues,” Sara Jones, director of county library services at Marin County (Calif.) Free Library, tells American Libraries.
While the official results from surveys related to the program have yet to come in, overall, the VR public library initiative has been a success among patrons.
“VR users are amazed, delighted, and awed with the technology, so that in itself is a better outcome than many services we put significantly more effort and funding into providing,” says Jones.