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The Changing Faces of the Library Through Technology

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It is widely thought that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus was the first to note “change is the only constant in life.” This sentiment especially holds true for libraries. It was not that all long ago that these were quiet refuges of study, where finding a book meant searching through narrow drawers of card catalogs, where music was only available on vinyl or cassette tape. But that’s all changed. The card catalog is now online, computers with Internet access now dot the desks, and it’s now possible to borrow a eBook without even leaving the house. And while some may question the relevance of libraries in today’s technologically savvy world, the reality is that they continue to serve the public just as they always have. Perhaps even more so.

“Think of us as an educational institution,” said Susan Odencrantz, Director of the Tacoma Public Library System, who blows off the idea that libraries have become obsolete. “It has always been a ‘just in time’ self-directed educational system. Because no one thought of it that way, they never saw how people actually use the library.”

The Tacoma Public Library System and the Pierce County Library System have gone through transformations that many might not have noticed. “[Our library has] changed a lot in how we deliver services,” said Odencrantz, “but we still deliver traditional services as well. We don’t look that different. People assume because we look the same when you come in, you see books, CDs, DVDs, tables, and chairs, it looks simple. We want it to look simple. And to a large degree, we want it to look the same because it’s comfortable. But below all of that, the library is run in a completely different way.”

Mary Getchell, Marketing and Communications Director for the Pierce County Library System, agrees. “We evolved with the demand of the customer,” she said. “Our customer is the public.”

It is that drive to serve the customer that in 2016 the Pierce County Library System underwent a review to build a strategic plan to better serve the community and see what they like. “We had intentional sets of conversations,” Getchell explains, “online surveys, in-branch surveys, interviews with community leaders to understand what the library should be focusing on.” Using technology as a tool, the two library systems have capitalized in adapting the library as a modern resource. For instance, the Tacoma Public library offers homework help over the internet for public school students.

One of the most interesting developments in library technology is the ability for librarians to check trends both geographically and demographically. For example, some libraries have a lot of materials in Korean or Spanish due to the demographics of that area. Other libraries have a high demand for romance novels over historical fiction, and they now have the ability to cater to those wants and needs.

These technological advances come at a price however. It is no longer as simple as buying a book and putting it on the shelf. Now there are eBooks, downloadable audiobooks, and books on CD. Because of the variety of formats, the same content needs to be purchased many times. Plus, the cost of digital materials is far more expensive than the hard copies, which makes things all the more difficult. “The biggest challenge today is trying to balance the demand for the same title in different formats with a limited budget,” said Tracey Thompson, Pierce County Library Collection Services Manager.

These services are just the tip of the iceberg. Tacoma Public Library developed a program to assess and educate the homeless called “Homeward Bound.” Pierce County Library hosts an annual author event called the “Pierce County READS” program, which is now in its 10th year.

“Libraries are not going away because the need isn’t going away,” assures Odencrantz. “The needs are the same, but they just look different now.”