Four-year-old Tiffany watches uncertaintly in the darkened room. Peering from behind her older sister’s legs, she quietly observes three boisterous boys swing their arms toward a giant screen, with egg-white remote controls in hand. A game of Wii Sports bowling is underway at the Whitemud Crossing Branch of the Edmonton Public Library (EPL).
Now it’s Tiffany’s turn. She cautiously moves her remote, watching wide-eyed as her simulated bowling ball rolls slowly toward the pins – strike! Her eyes light up. “My first time ever and I got them all,” she whispers.
It’s charming to watch, but it leaves an obvious question: Why is this happening in a library?
“It is a bit of a stretch,” admits the library’s executive director of public services, Pilar Martinez, “but we’ve offered Wii Sports to children and teams of seniors at various branches since 2007. It engages them, making technology fun and non-intimidating. It’s a great tool for increasing digital literacy and our focus includes all kinds of literacy.”
Remember when literacy meant the ability to read and write? Today that definition is as restrictive as dial-up Internet. An LED sign at the Stanley A. Milner branch flashes today’s more expansive meaning in little white bulbs: “Literacy is more than just reading and writing. It’s also the way we make sense of all kinds of information.”
We’re still reading to understand the world around us, but the words we absorb are increasingly on high-tech screens rather than between covers. In tech talk, reading has gone “multi-platform.” This summer, we’ll enjoy the pleasures of reading – under a shady tree in the park, at the beach, on lunch breaks or in deck chairs during long twilights – but we might “turn” those pages on a Kobo or Kindle, iPad or iPhone.
E-readers are moving from novelty gadgets to common possessions enjoyed by teens, parents or grandparents. A May report from a leading market research company The NPD Group showed six per cent of Canadians own e-readers, the same percentage who own electronic tablets like iPads, which also function as e-readers. And in May, Amazon’s e-book sales beat all print sales.
The trend is not limited to Internet sales either. An Association of American Publishers report from January/February 2011 sales shows that, for the first time ever, e-books outsold every other category of trade publishing, including adult paperbacks and hardcovers.(However, when combined, print-book sales for those months were $441.7 million, nearly three times more than e-books, but down nearly 25 per cent from the year before.)
Libraries recognize the challenges of connecting with readers in a digital world, and just as Martinez – a fashionably dressed young woman – looks nothing like outmoded stereotypes of bespectacled, bun-headed librarians, the EPL has redefined itself, too. It’s reaching beyond traditional images of buildings filled with books to embrace the new literacy needs of our information age. Whether that’s Wii Sports or the latest app to download e-books to your iPhone, the library is also turning a digital page through creative approaches to technology.
Technology has been a game changer for libraries. For better or for worse, a generation that’s grown up Googling is more likely to turn to Wikipedia and other online sources when researching than pull an encyclopedia off the local library shelf. Across North America, budgets were cut, staff were laid off and hours reduced.
The EPL is among a minority of libraries reversing that trend. Two years away from its 100th anniversary, this near-centenarian has renewed vigour. Expansion and renovations are in progress at existing locations; construction is underway or planned for brand-new branches; and there is talk of giving the core Stanley A. Milner branch a makeover, inside and out. This year, city council approved funding to keep library doors open Sundays at all 17 branches, except in summer months. And in 2010, circulation – resources borrowed or downloaded – soared to the highest levels in its history, rising 23 per cent in the past two years alone.
Part of its success story lies in its multi-media rebranding campaign launched in 2010, so well-executed that it won 11 international marketing awards, including highest honours from the American Library Association. But is there more to the library’s new energy than T-Shirts, mugs and cards proclaiming “We Make Geek Chic” and “Chicks Dig Big Brains?” Is the library actually doing what its catchy new slogan, “Spread the Words,” claims?
The EPL is one of a handful of Canadian libraries backed by a marketing team with business-world expertise.
When marketing and fund development director Tina Thomas, who joined the EPL from Nortel in 2009, took stock of the library’s resources, she thought it was undervalued. “Like many people, I used the library as a child, then drifted away,” says Thomas. “I came back when I had children and was amazed at what’s now available. I’m passionate about sharing the value of what I’ve rediscovered.” Paperbacks and hardcover books still account for the vast majority of the library’s circulation, but digital options (and usage) are accelerating. “EPL has offered e-books on loan since 2008, but there wasn’t much user activity,” says Peter Schoenberg, director of Eservices. “Last Christmas was a tipping point. So many people got e-readers as gifts that interest spiked. Because we’d already laid the groundwork, we were ready to respond to the new demand.”
Schoenberg is constantly searching for new ways to expand EPL’s electronic options, acknowledging that library members still love books. This year, though, he predicts the rate of growth for electronic content will outpace the growth in “physical objects” (i.e. books, magazines and DVDs). He also dispels the assumption that interest in e-books is limited to the under-30 set. “It’s coming from every demographic. Staff told me about a 92-year-old who came into a branch asking for help with her new e-reader. There are lots of seniors like her.”
Schoenberg is candid about the quirks and limitations that e-book borrowers might encounter. “We’re in a transitional time,” he explains. “To some extent we’re still hamstrung by vendor restrictions and copyright limitations that are carry-overs from traditional publishing, which is trying to apply print rules to the digital world. It doesn’t really work, but they haven’t found a better model yet.”
For example, most digital books purchased by the library come with a “one-book, one-user” policy. After a user downloads a book to his or her device, it becomes unavailable to others until it “expires” after three weeks, even if the person polishes it off in three days and wants to return it. Other members have to put “holds” on digital books, not for logistical reasons, but because of licensing. Still, EPL’s cyber-shelves are busy and the number of e-books downloaded tripled in 2010.
Schoenberg says e-books are only the start of non-conventional offerings. Audiobooks in mp3-format are also in-demand, especially with those who have long commutes. The PressDisplay service offers free, same-day electronic access to more than 800 international newspapers that look exactly like their print versions. As well, card-holding members can live-stream everything from Handel to Hedley on the three digital music libraries, or download free non-expiring song files from Sony Music’s Freegal service – without worrying about copyright violations.
Since accessing electronic content is a new skill for many borrowers, the EPL is also working hard to ease the experience. Schoenberg says that it was one of the first Canadian libraries to create an iPhone app which gives mobile access to the entire catalogue and smoothes the download process. The EPL has also launched “travelling tech roadshows” where staff discuss pros and cons of various e-readers and give the curious a hands-on experience with each. For teens, there’s Tech Boot Camp, which demonstrates how to use social media, develop their own stop-motion animation videos and create their own on-line songs. One-on-one instruction is also available at most branches for all ages.
Schoenberg believes traditional books will still be around in 10 years, although they may no longer be the library’s core business. “Ten years ago Facebook didn’t exist, so who knows what’s coming? CDs and DVDs appear headed for extinction, but the book still has a long life. The book was, and continues to be, a brilliant invention.”
Schoenberg predicts that bricks-and-mortar libraries will also change as readers transition to digital libraries. “I see a shift to buildings designed for more community meeting-space and less shelf-space,” he says. To stay on top of that trend, the EPL is looking at how libraries around the world use their interior space beyond the library’s original function as a book repository.
That thinking is already evident in the design of the new Jasper Place branch. “There’s not a pillar in the place,” says Schoenberg. “It’s a totally open layout that will make it easy to reconfigure for gatherings and events. All the wiring is in the floor so we can easily move or add digital connections to accommodate new technology.”
Gutenberg may not recognize the book of the future, or the places we keep them, but both are here to stay. “The library of the future will not have as many shelves of books, but it will still be very involved with literacy of all kinds,” Schoenberg says. “How we borrow and share information may change, but the reason libraries exist won’t. Virtual or actual, libraries remain places to share knowledge. That’s not going away.”
How the EPL Stacks Up
– 34% more materials borrowed or downloaded per citizen than the national average
– 42% more visits, both in person and by the Web, than the average Canadian library.
– 82% more questions answered per citizen than other Canadian libraries
– It costs EPL 16% less than the average Canadian library to make its materials available to customers