Technology enhances local libraries’ services


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor


Libraries will always be about books—a place for checking out physical reading and reference materials. However, in recent years, libraries have become increasingly technological. They now provide computer and Internet access, make searching for books and information quicker and easier and allow library patrons with e-readers, like Kindles or Nooks, to rent e-books online—services that work to complement and enhance that traditional role.


E-book rentals

Both the McGregor Public Library and Murphy Memorial Library in Monona are part of North Eastern Iowa Bridge to Online Resource Sharing (NEIBORS), which allows people with a library card to log on to and borrow from a digital library website containing thousands of e-books and audio books. Each member library pays a fee for its patrons to access the site, which is searchable based on things like author, genre and reading level. However, like with the real library, books can already be checked out, so searching for only available titles is also a handy option. E-books and audio books can be checked out for up to two weeks right from a patron’s personal device, no matter the location. Once the time is up, the material will automatically go away.


Around 2009, when the libraries first got NEIBORS, Murphy Memorial had around 25 users each month, said librarian Christine Bee. Now, that number has tripled, with usage into the 80s some months.


“We’re maintaining that larger number,” Bee said. “For a small library, that’s a lot.”


During fiscal year 2013, the McGregor Public Library’s online usage of audio and e-books was 525. In fiscal year 2014, which finished at the end of June, that number rose to 719. Although usage has steadily increased, librarian Michelle Pettit said it accounts for only 3 percent of the library’s circulation.


“People still love reading physical books, even if they have a Kindle,” she said. “It’s not as though they don’t read. If they love to read, they’re going to do it in any format they can.”


While a physical book might be better for lounging around the house, e-readers are handy for traveling. Adjustable settings also help those with poor eye sight read more easily. Sometimes, helping readers find those settings and other e-reader functions is part of the local librarians’ job descriptions.


Bee said she’s helped patrons get started with a device, showing them how to download books. Although people could go to the store to learn more, she said the convenience of the local library, as well as the non-judgmental environment, makes them popular for trouble shooting tech questions.


“They know we’re willing to answer the question if we can,” she said. “We’re not experts, but we sure try.”


Pettit and Jane Lundquist, who is also with the McGregor Library, said the period after Christmas is often a busier time.


“A lot of moms get Kindles,” Lundquist said. “They come in and say, ‘I got this for Christmas. How do I use it?’”


Computer and Internet access

The libraries have also helped residents deal with other technology changes, like the newly introduced Windows 8. This year, each held a workshop through the Clayton County Library Association where people could bring in their own devices and learn how to better acquaint themselves with the changes. 


Through a cooperative effort by the association, (which includes all nine Clayton County Libraries) a State Library of Iowa Technology Grant was obtained, so each library was also able to add a Windows 8 touch screen all-in-one computer.


Bee said the library in Monona would like to hold more classes. She’s hopeful the library’s planned expansion, which will include a meeting room, will create a good environment.


“We like feedback from people on what they’d like to learn,” she said, explaining that experts can be brought in to talk about certain topics. “Learning is not just from books, but from other people. The possibilities are endless.”


Access to computers is also an important component of local libraries. In Monona, Bee said there’s an average of 200 users each month,  mostly adults. They’re working on rental agreements or business things, like printing pay stubs that now have to be accessed online. 


The library is also a resource for people with faulty equipment at home.


“You can plug your flash drive in here,” Bee said. “We’re always up and running.”


While the computers are still utilized in McGregor, Pettit said they are used less frequently now.


“We used to have people waiting for computers, but now that rarely happens,” she said. “People have their own devices and more are using our WiFi. That’s increased a lot.”


People are still job searching, writing papers and taking online classes via the library, said Pettit, it’s just more remote now.


“More is happening from home now,” she said of all the library’s resources. People can browse, reserve and request books through the library’s website. With a library user ID and password, patrons can also access EBSCOhost, which provides full-text magazines, journals and newspapers online—a great resource for research papers.


Making connecting easier

An important aspect of the technology changes, said Pettit and Lundquist, is that record keeping is more secure. Locating and checking out books is also more user friendly. They recalled a time when searching for books on cats (there are over 200) via the card catalog could take all day, rather than just seconds.


Bee said the speed of access is also one of the biggest changes she’s noticed.


“When I started, I was using one of the first computers,” she said. “Interlibrary loan was done with a fax machine, and now it’s instantaneous. [Technology] makes life easier, especially gathering information.”


However, just because something’s easier doesn’t mean the old way is obsolete, explained Pettit.


“When the escalator was invented, people didn’t stop having stairs,” she said, comparing that to why books and other physical resources are still used. “There’s something about books and having things on paper. There are different ways to get stories and information, and people don’t just demand one format. They want them all.”


“Libraries have always been a comfortable place to learn. The libraries of the future are always going to be about information,” Bee added. “Information is information, whether it’s books or digital.”


To learn more about the libraries and their services, check out their websites and Facebook pages. 

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