A 'Cloud' on the horizon
Pasadena embraces change as libraries everywhere enter the Electronic Age
By Christina Schweighofer 10/06/2011
Jan Sanders has had her kindle for a couple of years. She likes to use it when she travels.She just finished reading Bill Bryson’s “At Home: A Short History of Private Life.”
“It’s a funny book,” Sanders said recently, sitting in her office at the west end of Pasadena’s CentralLibrary on Walnut Street. Sanders must know a good book when she finds one. She holds the postof the library’s director.
In the United States, consumers — like Jan Sanders — are increasingly picking up Kindles andNooks, and they are reading books on iPads and computers. Sales of e-books already outnumberthose of hard covers as well as those of paperbacks. How will public libraries fare in this environment? Does the fact that Google is scanning the world’s 130 million books mean the end of libraries?Will public libraries soon be obsolete?
Sanders, who speaks with a strong, confident voice, does not hesitate when answering such questions. “I do not see the demise of public libraries because of electronic books,” she said. “We are about reading, not about the format.”
Sanders embraces digitization, believing that the e-book is the library format of the future. The statistics support Sanders’ theory. Pasadena’s libraries are seeing usage of e-books increase at a rateof 30 percent per month.
The Pasadena Library started its move into the digital age a few years ago. Users can download books from an external site, but they need special software to do so. A new, simpler e-book lendingservice, the Cloud Library project, is about to be tested. Pasadena is one of eleven public libraries nationwide, and the only one in California, to adopt the system, which is still in its beta phase. It is being developed by 3M, the Minnesota-based inventor of Scotch Tape and the Post-It note, among other products.
With the Cloud Library, books will be accessible from PCs, Nooks, iPads and smart phones. For userswho do not own these devices, the library will lend out hardware. The e-readers have been designedspecifically for the Cloud Library and cannot be used for other applications. Patrons will also be able to access e-books from dedicated e-kiosks at the library.
Planning for the Cloud Project is well underway. A number of book publishers and distributors, including Random House and IPG, have agreed to make their books available electronically. The Cloud Library’s only fault seems to be that Amazon is not on board with its Kindle, but the hope is that thecompany will come around. For Pasadena, library staff training is scheduled to begin in October. According to Tom Mercer, 3M’s product development manager for the Cloud Library Project, the system is anticipated to be fully operational and available to patrons in November.
Sanders is enthusiastic about the project.
“You can’t lose or damage thebook,” she said, “there is no shelving, and there are no late fees. After three weeks, the book will simply disappear from your device. It is a fabulous way to provide books.”
In addition, “fewer stacks and fewer shelves could mean more comfortable seating, more community-making places.”
The Central Library on Walnut Street, a structure listed on theNational Register of Historic Placesand designed by architects Myron Hunt and H.C. Chambers, is nearly 85 years old. Its walls are two-feet thick and insulate the building well. On warm days, the heat radiates from the brick floor in front of the main entrance, but inside the air is cool.
On a recent afternoon in September, a handful of people stood in line to check out books atthe front desk. They waited patiently, talking in low voices, if at all. In the reading room, patronswere clicking away at laptops or reading newspapers. Further to the west, in the children’s library, a little girl listened as her father read a story to her. Fragments of the text (something about a big bear and a little bear) carried to the next chair. The girl sucked her thumb; her eyeswide open with excitement.
In the patio café, a youngwoman who introduced herself asTeresa sat in the shade. Sheexplained that she likes librariesbecause of the quiet environment.On this particular day she hadcome for the Wi-Fi service. Lookingat the cup in front of her, shesmiled and said, “The coffee is abonus.” Asked about her ideas forthe library of the 21st century,Teresa remembered a service at herhometown library in Amherst,Mass., where immigrants can learnhow to become citizens. “I used tovolunteer to teach them,” she said.
Teresa’s views are typical for thecountry. Americans want theirlibraries to provide access tocomputers and information aboutgovernment services as well asliteracy support and services forteens to keep them safe andproductive. The public libraries haveheard the call: In Chicago, a programcalled YouMedia seeks to provide aspace for high school students tomeet and read, check out gamesystems and laptops, learn how tocreate videos and to broadcast.
Pasadena’s public libraries offerliteracy services and resources forthe unemployed, such as access tolanguage learning software and joblistings and one-on-one professionalcareer counseling for job seekers.The Hastings branch recentlylaunched a home-school collectionwith material to support parenteducators. The Central Library willbe opening a new Teen Center inearly November.Sanders envisions libraries asspaces where members of thecommunity are stimulated toengage in conversation, wherepublic discourse is possible. This isalready happening in some places,such as Los Angeles. The LA CentralLibrary’s ALOUD program offerslectures, readings, performancesand conversations featuring keyfigures in the arts and humanities,business, politics and science. Theprogram is financed by the LibraryFoundation of Los Angeles.
Like other public institutions,libraries have seen their budgets cutin recent years, although a 2008 studyof library support in America foundthat two-thirds of the populationwould be willing to pay more localtaxes to increase library funding.
In Pasadena, citizens repeatedlyvoted in favor of a dedicated tax tosupport the Central Library and itsnine branches. The library budgetfor the current fiscal year is justmore than $11.6 million ($9.3million out of the city’s general fundand $2.3 million from the libraryspecial tax). That is down from2009, when the library’s total budgetwas almost $12.6 million.
Sanders has recently beenappointed to a California state taskforce charged with finding a newfinancing model for the state’s publiclibraries. One of the things the groupis looking at is whether funding canbe taken to a broader level, maybefrom local to statewide.
“I am not sure that the historicalmodel with geopolitical boundariesstill serves us well,” Sanders said.
E-readers and the Cloud may notbe killing the public library, but theyare definitely changing the way thoseon the forefront think about it.