From Lisle to Libertyville, libraries are striving to make the best possible use of technology
You've been waiting for more than half an hour for a seat. It's incredibly crowded because you came at a peak hour and everyone seems to be taking their time.
Just as you're starting to get frustrated, the buzzer in your hand lights up and vibrates, alerting you that a space has finally opened.
No, you're not at a restaurant during the dinner rush -- you're at Lisle Public Library.
Restaurant-style buzzers, introduced at the beginning of June, are just the latest addition to the library as it strives -- along with other libraries throughout the area -- to take greater advantage of technology.
"(Patrons) can browse the library; they can use the bathroom; they can go get a book; they can browse the movies," library Director Shannon Halikias said. "They can actually use the facility instead of having to hover over the computers waiting for their turn, so it's so much more convenient for people."
The library has 12 computers and purchased 10 buzzers with the hopes of adding at least eight computers in the near future to meet the growing demand.
"For our building size and our population size, as well as the increasing need for technology, I feel that we really do not have enough," Halikias said. "Right now, we're America's office on-the-go."
Lisle seems to be a pioneer in this reservation system.
"To the best of my knowledge, we're one of the first in the area that has the pagers," Halikias said. "We may be kind of a testing ground for some of our regional libraries."
Working to innovate
Though Lisle Library may be one of the first of its kind to use restaurant-style buzzers, Halikias says it's the mission of libraries everywhere to be innovative and meet the needs of their communities in new and creative ways.
Libraries are in the business of information, and new technology is just another way to provide patrons with that, she said.
It seems to be working.
"I think it's important that libraries play a role in bridging the digital divide for patrons, especially for those who might not have the skill set that others have," said David Archer, manager at Vernon Hills' Aspen Drive Library. "I think the more people that read, regardless of the format, the more people are going to use the library."
Lisle Library serves a population of 28,504, and 12,230 of those people, or 43 percent of the community, are active users. A typical cardholder has checked out 38 items, and in the past fiscal year, Lisle broke the 500,000 mark in circulation for the first time.
Collectively, officials say, libraries across the U.S. have more cardholders than Visa and circulate more items than FedEx.
"We're constantly looking outside in communities, in businesses and other organizations to see what's working, just as I think other businesses and organizations need to look at the effectiveness of libraries and realize what we're doing really successfully," Halikias said. "We're doing something really right at American libraries."
Part of this success comes from being flexible, adaptive and making usability easier for patrons.
"Libraries constantly evolve, and, in fact, because we're willing to evolve, that's one of the reasons why we're a sustaining organization," Halikias said.
Lisle Library, like many others, also is in the process of adapting to the popularity of e-readers. By late summer, the library will begin installation on a new reader's hub designed to give patrons an education in the latest tablets and e-readers, where they will also be able to check them out.
E-readers will be pre-loaded with genres, allowing customers to check out the "mystery" Nook, for example. A flat-screen TV behind the desk will show patrons how to use the devices, as will a staff member constantly on hand.
Naperville Public Library, which operates three sites, introduced a similar service May 1 and has 30 Nook Simple Touch e-readers and six Nook tablets available for checkout.
The library also recently introduced its new mobile app, where residents can search the library catalog, check their accounts, ask questions, find events and more from their phones. Cook Memorial Public Library District and Arlington Heights Memorial Library have introduced similar mobile apps.
Lisle Library Assistant Director Katharine Seelig said libraries always have been in a position to introduce the community to new technology, dating back to Beta and VHS players.
"They want to try it before they go and buy it, and the libraries provide a place to do that," she said. "You can walk in, we can teach you how to use it and give you an introduction."
Elgin's Gail Borden Public Library also offers many programs that help introduce technology to residents, including one that helps kids use software to create their own video games and others that teach them how to edit video and use GarageBand, the Apple software that allows users to create music or podcasts.
"We help kids learn about the tools, to grasp what's out there currently," said Denise Raleigh, division chief of public relations and development at Gail Borden. "We also think our role in technology is as an educator. We're really trying to lift everyone's game because those are skills kids need now."
Classes at Arlington Heights Memorial Library encompass everything from learning to use the Internet to creating digital videos and mastering Photoshop, Facebook and Twitter. The library also recently opened a digital media lab, where two 27-inch iMac computers are loaded with digital media software that visitors can use to edit video and music and create websites, among other uses.
"We try to be a go-to place for our community to learn about technology and to keep updated on technology," said Richard Kong, manager of digital services.
Cook Memorial Public Library District, which includes locations in Libertyville and Vernon Hills, has self-checkout machines and automatic materials handling systems that resemble ATMs, where patrons can drop off their books.
"Academic public libraries have been using computers and technology for the past half-century," said Stephen Kershner, Cook Memorial Public Library District's director. "The public library is really one of the cornerstones of democracy. I think we definitely help improve the quality of life for our community."
Digital subscriptions are becoming a large part of public libraries, as well. Sixty-three Illinois libraries share roughly 8,000 digital subscriptions, which readers can download onto their devices. Gail Borden provides Freegal Music for patrons, which allows them to download free songs from a Sony catalog.
"It expands the library into somebody's personal living room, on their convenience and their demands, so it stretches what we do," Halikias said.
In fact, a December 2011 Pew Research Center survey showed the shift to digital material may be doing more to help literacy than hurt it -- some 43 percent of Americans ages 16 and older said they had read an e-book or read other long-form content in a digital format in the past year.
The study also showed the average reader of e-books read 24 books in a year, while non-e-book customers read an average of 15 books
"Reading is infectious," Archer said. "So whether you're reading it on a tablet or a traditional hand-held book, it's going to fuel that desire."
In the end, Halikias said it's about being adaptable and thinking outside the box.
"Purchasing or participating in new initiatives that increase the usability and the comfort level of the patrons is something I find really exciting," Halikias said. "It's not just about a restaurant-style buzzer; it's about thinking about comfort, and that's important when you use the library."
Libraries can serve as a "third space" for people, a place outside of home and work where they can lose themselves for a short time, Halikias said.
"We all need spaces of beauty and appreciation in our lives in order to feel good about our community, so I increasingly see libraries as being part of that third space dialogue," she said.