The Internet didn't kill the library card


(article reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, October 4, 2005, Page B-1)

By C.W. Nevius

Cities can be as status conscious as the rest of us. If your town doesn't have a slick City Hall or a multiplex cinema, you're not keeping up.

But do you know what the hot new item is? The plasma TV of civic improvements? A library.

Walnut Creek is the latest Bay Area city to propose a new library, an $18 million, 42,000-square-foot showcase. With the funding up for a vote in next month's election, residents are debating the wisdom of putting so much money and effort into what some think might be an antiquated concept. Didn't the Internet take over what librarians used to do?

"That was the standard question five years ago for library administrators when they interviewed for a job,'' says Julie Casamajor, assistant director for public services at the new Livermore library. "What is going to happen to libraries now that modern technology has taken over?''

Actually, exactly the opposite has happened. In the past five years, despite the overwhelming presence of the Internet, libraries are experiencing record attendance.

Musty books? Stacks of shelves? A stern librarian enforcing the code of silence? That's trendy?

Nope. Nothing like that. The new library is a sprawling, open, friendly place where people go to surf the Web on a Wi-Fi connection, sip a latte and check out a movie. There are still books, of course, but nationally the most popular items to be checked out of libraries are DVDs. Traditionalists are horrified.

"They miss that old, quiet library, if there ever was one,'' says John Berry III, editor in chief of Library Journal, a magazine that tracks new trends in the field. "I don't remember ever being shushed in a library, but maybe I was.''

He certainly won't be shushed now. New libraries like Santa Clara's Central Park or Livermore's new Civic Center Library have gathering rooms for groups, coffee shops and loads of computers.

Berry says some of the new libraries are "like a theme park.'' Some of them, he says, have a traditional reading room, but one that is "off to the side, with a Disney (meaning fake) fireplace.''

It wasn't long ago that it seemed the library was as outdated as a card catalog. (Almost all libraries use computers to find and track books now.) When Google announced in December that it was planning to put the contents of leading libraries online, for free, it seemed to be the long-anticipated end to the brick-and-mortar library.

It isn't just the sparkling new facilities either. Although Walnut Creek officials hope Measure R, the bond on the Nov. 8 ballot, will get the two-thirds majority needed to pass, senior branch librarian Cindy Brittain says they are already marking a surge in use. From 2001 to 2004, attendance is up 75 percent.

"Use of the library is up dramatically right now,'' Berry says. "More than in years. We think it is an economic decision. The library is a hell of a lot cheaper than other forms of education and entertainment.''

Just to reinforce Berry's comments, consider the $44 million Santa Clara facility, which opened in April 2004. Library cards have more than doubled, and attendance topped 1 million in the first year it was open.

Livermore, which opened a 52,700-square-foot showplace in June 2004, found that attendance was up 80 percent a year later and is averaging 57,000 visits a month. For a town of just 78,000 people, that's impressive, although 85 percent of them have a library card and have used it in the past two years, Casamajor says.

If you are surprised, you are not alone.

"Frankly,'' says Brittain, "I don't think people in the library world believed it either at first.''

The attendance boom has sparked new building. For example, in Lafayette, a new library is on the drawing board that will be a showstopper. Helped by an $11.9 million grant from the state, the Lafayette Library and Learning Center will cost an estimated $31 million, cover 62,000 square feet and is scheduled to open in 2008. The building will also house the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium, an educational program that will promote workshops, lectures, films and programs for both adults and children.

So why is the library thriving?

"My guess is that on the Internet you can get started, but you almost immediately run into books,'' Brittain says. "To go in depth, you need the library.'' As an example, Brittain suggests the middle school student who did a report on the Holocaust. But he got all of his information from a neo-Nazi Web site.

Visitors also come to rent DVDs -- "They are leaping off the shelves,'' says Casamajor -- and just to hang out, particularly in the new bookstore-like cafes. Casamajor says they often have businessmen who drop by for an hour or two of peace and quiet.

And the Internet? It turns out to be the library's best friend. Visitors use the library computers, and seniors come to learn computer skills in workshops and classes. So was everyone wrong about the threat of the Internet? Wouldn't be the first time.

Brittain keeps a copy of a news story at her desk. It details the concern that television is going to be the end of libraries. It is dated 1953.