Reportage, Photography, Video

Ottawa’s libraries changing with technology

In Features on March 4, 2011 at 6:27 am

Feature written for webcitybeat.com

Twenty years ago, if you took a book out from the library, a date was stamped on a card by a librarian and put in an envelope at the back of the book. All borrowing was catalogued on cards this way.

Now digital databases hold that data. Librarians can see which books have been checked out, when they’re due back and which branches hold a certain book a patron is looking for. All of this can be done at home by the public, too, saving visitors a wasted trip to the library in search of books or information.

As the age of the internet continues to change the way we live our lives, the older public database of knowledge, the library, is finding it must evolve to keep up.

At a cursory glance, it’s hard to give libraries a fighting chance in remaining relevant in a society permeated by immediately available information.

E-readers are making headway in local markets. Devices like the Kindle, and Sony E-Reader allow users to download virtual copies of books onto electronic devices they carry around with them. Hundreds of books can be stored on one device, meaning you don’t have to lug around hardcopies of reading material. The literature can be downloaded from online stores which have ever increasing catalogues that span from classic to modern works.

Smart phones are a big innovation for mobile phones. No longer do you need to be hardwired to a network to be able to access universal information. Cell-phones are less about making phone-calls than about tapping into information. Games, news reports, weather, websites, and social networks are all available on mobile phones.

Google, the world’s most used internet search engine, took in around US$6.50 billion in 2009. The site catalogues literally billions of internet web pages. Site visitors punch in key words for their search and Google lists the most relevant webpages in return. The site features services such as Google books, Google maps, the email service Gmail, and more, allowing users to consume lifetime’s worth of data.

Google has a completely transparent philosophy when it comes to information. They are known supporters of network neutrality, which is the idea that internet providers should not in any way influence the type of sites users should be able to access. The other side is that Google believes that privacy is a thing of the past. The company has faced numerous accusations of storing private search information of its users.

Is our traditional economic model of dollars and cents turning into bits and bytes?

“One of the big questions is: if all this [information] is online, why do we need libraries?” Professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa Mary Cavanagh said.

Cavanagh has been around libraries. She spent 15 years working in them in places like Kingston, Ottawa, Regina and Gatineau before taking a position at the University. Cavanagh has seen first-hand the changes that have shaped, and continue to shape Ottawa’s library system.

She describes herself as looking like a librarian, and she fits her self-description well, if perhaps a modernist version of one. She wears glasses and a scarf and her hair is mid-length and graying.  Upon talking with her she seems to both be able to keep up quick, frivolous banter while retaining a capacity for deeper conversation.

“The definition of library may be changing. Maybe it’s not about books it’s a place you can go and plug-in and ask experts,” Cavanagh said.

Libraries now have services where you can reserve books from home online, pick them up, and use an automated check-out machine. You may never have to consult a librarian again.

Libraries also house an expanding e-book selection. Due to registration limitations, visitors are allowed to check-out 10 e-books at a time.

We’re also seeing them transition into social spaces, Cavanagh explained.

Libraries in Ottawa are setting up teen spaces.  These are places where youth can go use the internet, listen to music and hang-out. In what seems contrary to traditional library culture, talking is allowed in these areas. Where has the “shhshing” librarian gone?

They seem to be changing, too. Quickly, library employees need to become experts. Patrons often have much of their research already done at home, through internet searches, and come to libraries searching for more obscure answers or material.

The trend towards expert services is taking a bizarre turn in the coming rent-an-expert service, in plans for Ottawa libraries. Visitors can come into a library branch and check-out an expert in a field and perhaps go and talk with them over a coffee. Cavanagh gives the example of a practicing Christian coming in and renting an expert on Islam for the afternoon.

However, in terms of competing resources of information, present day libraries haven’t faced this kind of competition before.

“It’s a revolution,” Cavanagh said.

So what if libraries lose in this race to provide information? There are certainly advocates for reducing the funding public libraries get.  In the midst of recession, libraries in developed countries are facing tight budgets and are relying on foundations or private support to get by. Cavanagh cites library closures in the U.K. as an example.

Will we see a return to the privately funded libraries of the past? Will they disappear completely?

When asked to imagine what she would do in a world without libraries, Cavanagh imagines herself starting informal book services.

“I would start bringing books to coffee shops and setting up stands saying, ‘can we put books here?’”

“I’d hack databases, trying to get at information,” Cavanagh said.

Vanessa Menor is a librarian at the Nepean Centrepointe library in Ottawa. The library, located by Baseline station and near Algonquin College, is known as a district branch; it holds one of the largest collections of books and biggest range of services in the city. The branch in particular holds one of the biggest amount of Asian material in Ottawa.

Menor has been a librarian for 10 years, so she wasn’t around to see the transition from stamped cards to computer database catalogues, but she said she has still seen changes.

“[Librarians] are not interacting with people as much as we used to, which is a shame because we’re good resources,” Menor said.

During our interview an older man came up and asked about a cook book he had made an inquiry about earlier. Menor adeptly searched the computer at the library’s info desk, they had previously planned to have the book transferred from another library, to Centrepointe. The man claimed to not need the book anymore as his wife’s sister had a copy and he was going to borrow it from her instead. The entire searching process took about 30 seconds.

Menor runs senior’s programs at the library, including a senior’s internet learning course she will be teaching that afternoon.

However, it’s the youth that Menor says the library has a hard time attacting.

“[Teenagers and early adults] we’re completely losing,” she said. Once they hit that age, there’s nothing here for them.”

“We find we get more interest in the technology programs,” she said. “We also have someone coming in to talk about social networking – Facebook and Twitter.”

Outfront of Nepean Centrepointe, library patron Bill Paul has nothing but praise for the services offered at Ottawa libraries.

“I think it’s very well run and we’re lucky to have it,” Paul said.

Paul has been coming here since he was a kid and said he will use the library for years to come.

He claimed he comes mainly for fiction books.

Even the youth demographic Menor claims to have lost still represent a portion of the library’s visitors. A group of high school students  in the back were hanging out in the teen zone of the library checking Facebook messages, surfing the internet, and listening to music.

The senior’s course is attended by around a dozen people in the library’s basement.

The lesson begins with teachings on how to enable the auto save feature in Microsoft Word, followed by how to put attachments on emails. To anyone who considers themselves even remotely knowledgeable with modern technology, this would seem like very basic stuff.

The lessons proceed at a stop-and-go pace, the seniors (students) often need help navigating the computer menus.

“We just got our first computer,” student Dorothy Turner explained.  Dorothy is here with her husband, Carman. At the time, the pair were trying to figure out how to use Google.

“We’re coming in next week for a meeting with a technician at the library to go over more advanced stuff.”

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