Libraries Are Embracing 21st-Century Resources; Facilities Aren't Just for Books Anymore, with E-Readers to Lend out, Phone Apps and Free Online Courses

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The photo of children listening to stories is clearly dated. Old- fashioned clothing is the giveaway.

Although taken in 1912 at the St. Louis Public Library, the activity itself children's storytime has never gone out of style.

"Storytimes are as busy as ever, and we still do them well," says Waller Mc-Guire, who has hung the 100-year-old photo outside his office as executive director.

In the 21st century, however, stories might be read from iPads, which hold dozens of books. Truck drivers download audio books to take on the road, and lawyers in Singapore email a Midwest librarian for information on trademarks.

"We're like retail stores, banks, media," McGuire says, "trying to understand how we can best serve people using new technology." Curiously, however, studies show that residents are often unaware of the vast updates, and challenges, as libraries grapple with 21st- century changes.

As the city's historic Central Library finishes a $70 million renovation, celebrating with a fancy party this weekend, the St. Louis County Library begins planning its own construction projects.

County voters this month approved a tax rate increase, signaling confidence in the future of their system's 20 buildings. It will be a "renaissance for libraries in the St. Louis region," says Charles Pace, the county library director.

Both directors say updated facilities are essential but they are not the only changes taking place in these public institutions.

BEYOND BOOKS

"I still get people who are surprised we have DVDs," Pace says.

Not only do 21st-century public libraries have free movies, they also may:

Help people start small businesses.

Offer phone apps to download books from home.

Lend out e-readers or show patrons how to use various devices.

Offer free online courses or access to expensive genealogy databases.

In addition, even though much conventional wisdom brays that children don't read, evidence shows that library usage among teens and young adults is strong.

A study released last month showed that readers under age 30 are more likely to use public libraries. Sixty percent of those readers compared with 49 percent of people over 64 said they visited the public library at least once in the year before the survey, according to a Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

Overall, library users told Pew that they want it all: e-books and print books, plus audiobooks, movies, magazines, newspapers, computers and wireless service.

The Brentwood Public Library recently bought Kindle e-readers, which patrons may take home (they have tracking devices inside so they don't disappear). Some of the Kindles come pre-loaded with several books in a particular genre, such as mysteries or romances.

When the city's Central Library reopens Dec. 9, it will have added about 50 iPads, which it plans to circulate. Phone apps are being developed to help patrons navigate the building.

Today's public library is trying to be "nimble and stay in touch with the community," the county library's Pace says.

In an email a week after voters approved the county tax increase, Pace said the revenue is important not only to make repairs, but to implement the "latest advances in the library industry." Although no final decisions have been made, Pace says the county library's future may include a "digital content creation lab, small-business incubator space, (and) Makerspaces, which incorporate 3-D printing and other new technologies." The library is responding, as he says, to a world that has gone from "information scarcity to information abundance," and yet its community-driven mission isn't always that different from the one of libraries a century ago.

THE CARNEGIE LEGACY

Some of the first public libraries had not only books, but billiard rooms and basketball courts.

The Carnegie Library of Homestead in Pennsylvania still rents out a heated indoor pool and holds concerts in its music hall. …