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Article updated: 2/17/2013 10:40 AM

Suburban libraries go digital, add services

Libraries seeing resurgence of activity in suburbs

By Matt Arado

Playing video games on the Xbox. Learning how to make crepes. Applying for a U.S. passport.

Different activities, yes, but with one thing in common: All can take place in a suburban public library.

When the digital age dawned, many predicted that libraries, those hushed repositories for dusty printed books, would soon be about as relevant as 8-track tapes.

But library administrators say that, in fact, use of libraries has never been more robust. They say libraries have changed with the times, transforming themselves into vital community centers that provide access not just to books, but also new technology and recreational programs.

"Our basic role is the same as it always has been -- we're a conduit between the public and the world of information that exists out there," said Matt Womack, executive director of the Ela Area Public Library. "What's changed is how we fill that role."

Womack and other library professionals say there's nothing new about libraries changing with the times. But there's a greater sense of urgency now because of how quickly consumer habits and interests are evolving.

"I feel like the path forward is much less clear now," said Marilyn Genther, executive director of the Mount Prospect Public Library. "It's harder than ever to predict what kinds of services our users will want. But it's something we're looking at constantly."

Technology has always been a big driver of change for libraries. For more than a decade they've been a source of community Internet access, and lately many libraries have added e-books to their reading catalogs.

To help make their residents more comfortable with the brave new world of digital books, the Batavia Public Library recently unveiled a "tech petting zoo," an area where patrons can use one of eight popular e-readers or tablets.

"We also have staff members available to show users how to use the devices," said Stacey Peterson, the library's adult services manager. "The response has been very positive."

Many suburban libraries are pushing their technological offerings even further; instead of simply consuming digital content, patrons at many libraries have the tools they need to create it.

The Arlington Heights Memorial Library, for instance, recently opened the Studio, a digital media lab where patrons can use state-of-the-art equipment to create video, music, animation and other content. Similar facilities have either been planned or opened in libraries all over the suburbs.

"Content creation is a big push right now," said Jason Kuhl, executive director of the Arlington Heights library. "Digital material is a big part of school projects and business presentations these days. There's a real need for this."

Paired with these technological changes is a renewed emphasis on teens. The Schaumburg Township District Library is one of many in the suburbs that have expanded the space dedicated to teenagers. Schaumburg's new teen area, opened in November, now has 6,000 square feet, up from about 660 square feet. All of the new space was previously used by staff members.

"Approximately 11,000 people between the ages of 12 and 19 live in the area we serve," said Stephanie Sarnoff, director of the Schaumburg Township library. "We knew we had to reach out to that group. The hope is that once they start using the library, they won't stop."

Libraries are also changing the types of community programs they offer, regularly hosting activities that would have been rare, if not nonexistent, a generation ago.

The Ela Library recently started accepting applications for passports. The Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin hosts museum-like exhibits for the public; the next one, titled "SuperCroc" and opening in May, was developed by a University of Chicago paleontologist. Cooking classes, video-game sessions and home-improvement demonstrations are now routine library activities.

And, at a time when brick-and-mortar book retailers are disappearing, some libraries have added cafes and transformed their space to give it a more bookstore-like feel. The Batavia Public Library opened a cafe in its building roughly 10 years ago. In Arlington Heights, an ongoing renovation project has created an area known as the Marketplace -- a setting with comfortable seating, a cafe and best-selling books displayed face out.

"We've already received many positive comments about it," said Kuhl, the Arlington Heights library director. "People are glad to have it."

Because financial resources are tight, libraries have made these changes by eliminating outdated programs and services and re-purposing existing space. Grants have helped pay for some programs. Arlington Heights is paying for its ongoing renovations with money the library saved over a period of years.

Libraries' recent efforts to stay vital appear to be paying off. Many report that circulation of books, e-books and audiovisual items is at record levels. The Arlington Heights library, for instance, circulated 2.6 million items last year, its highest circulation level ever, and had 900,000 visitors, also a high, officials said.

Suburban libraries aren't the only ones doing brisk business. A survey completed in 2010 by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an organization that tracks library use, found that visits to libraries nationwide increased by 32.7 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Maureen Sullivan, president of the Chicago-based American Library Association, attributed the increase in part to libraries' early readiness to "bridge the digital divide."

"Libraries did a fantastic job early on realizing that not everyone in their communities would have personal access to the Internet," Sullivan said. "Providing that was a vital service to so many people."

More recently, she said, the economic downturn drove people to their libraries, where they could look for jobs online, work on resumes and, in many cases, receive job-hunting assistance from staff members.

Looking ahead, library professionals say they expect more change to come. While printed books remain a huge part of libraries' business, the popularity of digital alternatives is exploding. That means libraries have to start thinking about what to do with the space now occupied by bookshelves, officials say. And many suburban libraries expect future generations of customers to be more diverse and tech savvy than current users.

Still, Gail Borden Library Executive Director Carole Medal said she's confident that area libraries can remain vital and relevant in the future.

"I see no reason why not, as long as libraries get involved with their communities," Medal said. "Libraries can't just sit quietly off to the side, saying 'come see us.' They have to partner with other groups in town.

"They have to reach out to their users to see what they want from the library. That's what will keep us relevant in the 21st century."

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