Local town libraries adapt to the digital age
Requesting an e-book through a home computer.
Reserving a hard copy book through a website.
Parking outside the library to check e-mail.
Modern library-goers in the Bethel area have options to choose from that readers of 30 years ago likely never imagined.
Although the libraries still have stacks and stacks of books on shelves, the digital age has crept quietly into the way readers, and librarians, use the time-honored institutions.
When Bethel librarian Michelle Conroy took the job 17 years ago, “The catalog was on hand-written cards,” she said.
Today, patrons can check for books on the library’s website from their cell phones or laptops and reserve them, if they like.
If a book is not available immediately, the patron gets an e-mail notification when it is.
And since early last year, readers have been able to go through the library site and “borrow” e-books with their Bethel Library card through the Maine InfoNet Download Library, via the Maine State Library.
Conroy estimates there have been thousands of e-book checkouts.
As a result of the new source for books, said Conroy, “We don’t need any more room at the library” for more books.
The library is also saving money on chasing down fines for overdue books. There’s much less postage for reminders to readers – just an e-mail.
In the library itself, people can use one of five public computers, and they do.
“Every hour we’re open they’re being used,” said Conroy. “It’s a wide variety of people. For many it’s because they don’t want to pay for Internet service.”
And with free WiFi offered, “Every morning when I come to work there are people parked out front,” she said.
Many are savvy tourists who look for a library in towns they visit.
On Monday morning, for example, a van from New York was parked by the library using WiFi.
In the winter, the library’s computers may be the only connection for young seasonal ski employees to connect with home. “Sometimes there are 20 people waiting,” said Conroy.
At Andover’s little library the services are similar.
“We have six computers (seven in a pinch) that are Internet-ready and available for free to our patrons,” said Librarian Janet Farrington.
Andover also offers e-book downloads and free WiFi.
The Waterford Library also offers public computers, e-books and free WiFi, as well as an online catalog to check book availability.
“From a librarian’s viewpoint, not having to maintain a card catalog is great, and not being limited to searches by author, title and somewhat arbitrarily assigned subject headings is helpful,” said librarian Dorthe Hillquist.
The Whitman Memorial Library in Woodstock has computers and WiFi, which get a lot of use, according to Librarian Althea Hathaway. They do not offer e-books because of the cost, she said.
There are disadvantages to the digital age for libraries. The competition from new resources draws some people away.
Conroy and Hathaway said they see fewer kids visiting.
“Kids - if they come - their parents bring them,” said Hathaway.
“We’ve seen [visits] go down a lot,” said Conroy. “We still get little ones coming in with their moms.”
Conroy isn’t sure, however, that all of it is attributable to kids doing digital activities elsewhere to the exclusion of reading.
She said there may be youngsters of whom she is unaware reading other e-books.
In addition, she said, “Story Hour here used to be huge. But I don’t think there are as many moms home to bring their kids anymore. Everyone is working.”
Most library usage, said Conroy, is by adults who are pleasure reading. The library has cut back on its nonfiction, she said, “because you can find anything you want on the Internet.”
Overall use, she believes, has grown. When she started as librarian there were between 2,000 and 3,000 card holders. Now, with users from other surrounding towns as well as more seasonal residents, “we have over 5,000.”
Farrington and Hathaway said walk-in use and circulation has remained steady at their libraries.
As in Bethel, the focus in Andover has shifted from nonfiction to recreational reading.
Farrington said libraries and the digital age have “a love/hate relationship. We want to move forward, but in a way that doesn’t cause our patronage and usefulness to decline. Probably the most important thing is that we listen to our patrons and try hard to keep the library personal. I think those kinds of things will keep libraries alive. I’m not afraid of the digital age. I believe if we keep up with it we won’t be left behind because of it.”