As technology advances, libraries direct more money to innovations

As Americans change the way they consume media, Ohio’s public libraries are keeping pace, updating the types of materials they offer to reflect the needs of their communities.

At Reed Memorial Library in Ravenna, that means 38 public computers, 501,029 e-books, 408,287 pieces of downloadable audio and 38,906 downloadable videos.

Brian Hare, director of Reed Memorial Library in Ravenna (courtesy of Brian Hare)

“We’re all about access,” said Brian Hare, director of Reed Memorial Library. “Access to books, access to audiobooks, access to (equipment). … Technology like that is the direction we’re heading.”

They have spent $20,963 so far this year on computer equipment and software. Technology spending varies year-to-year depending on what is purchased, but it has not exceeded $24,000 since 2014, when the library spent $52,815 on computer equipment and software.

Hare said one of the library’s most important technological investments is in e-media — digital versions of books, music and other media. Reed Memorial Library pays for multiple services that give patrons access to these materials with their library card.

Hare said Reed has “slightly reduced the physical media collection budget and taken a portion of that into the e-media budget.” He said patrons are increasingly embracing digital media while physical copy circulation has remained steady or slightly decreased in some months.

Data from the State Library of Ohio shows that Reed checked out 288,556 physical items last year compared to 43,506 “electronic content use.”

 

Hare believes the move towards more e-media and technology is in line with the library’s mission statement: “Reed Memorial Library will create exciting, enriching, engaging experiences for discovery and growth with a commitment to every person,” and one of its vision statements, to “utilize innovative tools and technologies to make an impact on our organization and the lives of our patrons.”

“I think the direction libraries tend to be heading is making available to people either experiences or technologies that they would not otherwise be able to have access to,” he said. “I think that’s where we can become valuable and indispensable to our communities.”

Library patrons and employees walk around Reed Memorial Library on Wednesday, November 21.

The State Library of Ohio is also contributing to the implementation of technology. Last year, they issued 70 Library Services & Technology grants, which are funded by the independent federal agency Institute of Museum and Library Services, and can be used for a variety of projects.

The State Library’s 2017 annual report details some of those projects, including The Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library’s creation of a digital media lab where teens can use technology and learn music production skills. While not all of the grants were used for technology equipment and programming, they open up the possibility for libraries to get creative in serving their communities.

Hare said a big part of deciding what technology to purchase, whether through grant money or otherwise, is determining what the community needs.

“What we’ve tried to look at as we increase technology offerings that we have here is to make sure it’s going to be relevant and used by our patrons,” he said. “We don’t want to go spend $60 or $75 thousand on a media studio that gets used twice a month.”

In urban areas, larger media studios have the potential to get a lot more use.

At the main branch of the Akron-Summit County Library in downtown Akron, an entire section of the first floor is dedicated to technology. This space, called the “TechZone@Main,” includes a computer lab for patrons, but it takes it a step further with several pieces of “makerspace” equipment. These include a 3D printer, embroidery machine, green screen, laser engraver and even a recording studio.

Pam Hickson-Stevenson, director of Akron-Summit County Public Library

Akron-Summit County Library director Hickson-Stevenson said libraries must find a balance between experimenting with new technologies and spending money on proven-popular materials. While she keeps an eye on “bleeding edge” library tech, she said purchasing it is risky.

“We like to take a little more cautious approach because we take our role as stewards of public funds very seriously,” she said. “We think that experimenting is good but we don’t like spending a lot of money on experimenting, because if it doesn’t work out, that’s money we don’t recoup.”

Still, Akron-Summit County Library continues offering new technologies that Hickson-Stevenson said support the organization’s mission.

“The library stands for information, knowledge, learning and human expression,” she said. “By supporting a DIY or a maker initiative, we are helping people learn more about new technologies. They’re learning new skills for themselves and they’re expressing their creativity.”

In some communities, the most pressing technological concern for libraries to address is internet access. Dan Yarman, director of the Ohio Public Library Information Network, said he’s seeing many libraries step up to address that void.

Don Yarman, director of Ohio Public Library Information Network (courtesy of Don Yarman)

“There’s been an increase in e-media circulation and the other digital materials that libraries can make available,” he said. “But they’re recognizing that in order for their patrons to use those, they have to have adequate internet access at home. And that is difficult for various reasons throughout the state, whether it’s economic or geographic.”

One possible solution, which Yarnan called “great” and “extraordinarily popular,” is making wireless access points available to patrons so they can take the internet home with them.

“We’ve been noticing an increasing number of libraries circulating wireless access points, that the libraries purchase the equipment and pay the monthly connection and data bills so they can circulate a device from T-Mobile or Sprint or some other provider, that provides their patrons with internet access that way,” he said.

Yarnan said he recently worked at a public library that offered wireless access point checkout with a library card, and the waitlist was often around 60 people.

Whether it’s through basic internet access or the advanced technologies found in media studios, Ohio’s public libraries are taking steps to address the information needs of patrons in new ways. While looking ahead to the future, these libraries are also looking inward at their communities and deciding what technologies would help patrons increase in knowledge and ability — a purpose libraries have been fulfilling for centuries.