The Rise of the Digital Public Library: Libraries Increasingly Are Fulfilling Roles as Technology Hubs for Their Communities, with High Demand for Technology and Career Development Training Resources

By McKendrick, Joseph | Computers in Libraries, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

The Rise of the Digital Public Library: Libraries Increasingly Are Fulfilling Roles as Technology Hubs for Their Communities, with High Demand for Technology and Career Development Training Resources


McKendrick, Joseph, Computers in Libraries


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The economy may be healing, and more funds are flowing to North America's public libraries. However, libraries continue to feel the sting of cutbacks and budget shortfalls. In addition, the historic shift to digital libraries is accelerating.

These are the findings of a new study, conducted by the Library Resource Guide (LRG)--in conjunction with Unisphere Research, the market research division of Information Today, Inc. (ITI). The survey, conducted in December 2011 among libraries listed in ITI's American Library Directory, reveals current spending patterns for public libraries--defined as libraries supported by municipalities, counties, or communities--and provides projections for budgets and spending trends for 2012. In total, 299 public library managers or librarians participated in this year's survey. In separate reports in this series, academic, government, and special libraries are also covered.

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There is a growing shift to digital offerings among public libraries. Libraries increasingly are fulfilling roles as technology hubs for their communities, with high demand for technology and career development training resources. Ebooks and other digital materials are on the rise, while print is being scaled back. More libraries are turning to the cloud to support operations or provide content.

Digital Libraries Are de Rigueur

The shift to the digital library has accelerated noticeably since the last survey just a year ago. Close to three-fourths of respondents, 71%, report that demand for their libraries' electronic offerings has increased over the past year. In contrast, 42% report increased demand for print resources. Print demand as well is off from a year ago, when it was comparable with ebook demand at 67%.

Demand for ebooks from libraries is also soaring. More than fourth-fifths of respondents, 81%, say they are seeing rising demand from patrons for ebook access, up from 43% a year ago. There has also been a surge in demand for streaming media resources through libraries, rising from 11% to 21% of respondents. While demand is off from a year ago, libraries continue to serve as community hot spots and job-search or career development resource centers. Four-fifths say their patrons seek wireless connectivity at their facilities, and close to 70% seek computer time or web access. More than two-thirds of respondents report that patrons come to their libraries for assistance with their career plans. These rising trends in patron requirements point to the evolving role of public libraries as hubs for providing assistance in preparing people for today's fast-evolving digital economy.

Demand for specific services is fairly consistent across the various sizes of public libraries covered in the survey. Demand for ebooks is high, but it stands out among libraries with 25,000 or more constituents.

"Demand for e-resources and other digital resources is in high demand, as are tools for independent learning, and job searching, especially in the tech industry and health information," says the director of a California library system. "As digital resources overtake print resources our facilities will need to be repurposed as interactive, independent, and group learning spaces."

Providing technical expertise and assistance to patrons is a challenge within itself, however. "Our patrons are requesting how-to classes on using ereaders (Kindle, Nook, etc)," says a library administrator in Arkansas. "We do not have the staff expertise at this time to provide these services. It would be wonderful to bring in a consultant, but there are no monies in our budget for that. We would have to rely on a donation."

Print Endures, E-Resource Funding not Always There

Still, many librarians find there is still demand for print. "We believe users will demand more electronic services yet we have to serve those without the means to access these," says one respondent, vice president of a large library system in Illinois. …

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