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Those Thoroughly Modern Libraries

A quiet place to read in front of a fireplace. Free Wi-Fi. A café selling coffee and other goodies. Used books for sale. Crazy Mocha or Joseph Beth Book Sellers? Neither. Try a public library.

Libraries aren’t just places to read and borrow books anymore. “Some people have this idea that libraries will be completely quiet, with no kids playing videogames or people sending text messages,” says Kelley Beeson, youth services coordinator for Allegheny County Library Association (ACLA)), a county-wide consortium of public libraries.

“A lot of people who don’t use libraries view them very romantically, how libraries were when they were children,” says Beth Mellor, marketing and member services coordinator for ACLA. “But the truth is, some libraries are old-fashioned and some are very modern.”

Allegheny County’s libraries are striving to keep current with the needs of their communities. That means you’ll find everything from video game competitions and career classes to computer centers and self-checkout kiosks in libraries throughout the county. Libraries are also extending their reach through the Internet, with blogs, downloadable audio and video, as well as the ability to search for and request materials online.

All libraries in Allegheny County share a common catalogue of materials, so once you have a library card from any public library in the county, you can request, borrow, and return materials at any other county library location. If you want an item that isn’t available at your home library, you can request to have it delivered there or arrange to pick it up at another site. With 44 main libraries and a total of 86 locations in Allegheny County, you have a lot of choices.

“I don’t think people understand the power of their library card in Allegheny County,” says Rebecca Serey, director of eiNetwork, which is the technology arm of ACLA.

Library 2.0

This type of customer service is part of a larger library trend called Library 2.0. Like its cousin Web 2.0, Library 2.0 is an umbrella term used to describe a shift toward more community-focused programs and user-centered services.

Much of Library 2.0 focuses on using technology to make libraries more efficient for both users and staff members. For example, things like blogs, websites, and email lists are easier to maintain than routinely stuffing and mailing hundreds of envelopes.

But are libraries still relevant in the age of the Internet? Librarians get that question a lot. And the answer is a resounding yes.

“Libraries are thriving because of the Internet,” Mellor says. “It’s added another dimension to the type of services they provide.” In addition, she says, librarians’ research skills and expertise are invaluable resources for people who need help finding reputable sources and information online.

Sandra Collins, the executive director at Northland Public Library, says that the library’s 40 computers are routinely full, dispelling the common notion that everyone has a computer and Internet access at home. Serey notes that all public libraries in Allegheny County have up-to-date computers with Internet access, and about half of the county’s libraries have Wi-Fi access. According to Suzanne Thinnes, a spokesperson for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP), computer usage is up at CLP’s locations. She says that CLP’s 19 branches provided 23.1 million minutes of free computer access last year.

Is Your Librarian on MySpace?

Joseph Wilk, a library assistant at CLP’s main branch in Oakland, says the staff members of CLP-Teen use technology to stay in touch with their young patrons via a blog and pages on MySpace and Facebook. Staff members share the responsibility of updating the online spaces, keeping current with trends, and checking the department email account for questions and suggestions.

Librarians wired? And hip? You bet and there's more, such as the video game programs CLP offers every Thursday evening and Friday afternoon. Past events have included a Madden ’07 football tournament and a Guitar Hero contest. Or how about other CLP-Teen activities that include art and anime clubs, the new Teen Sexual & Gender Diversity Alliance, and the first ever Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Teen Awards .

And of course, for more academic pursuits, students can also get help with research projects and can access live, one-on-one tutoring through CLP’s website.

Wilk thinks it’s perfectly normal to see such a wide range of services, programs, and technologies at work in one place. “Libraries are known as champions of information access. The formats just change. So it’s not surprising that those things are found in libraries,” he says.

A prime example of libraries keeping pace with changing formats is CLP’s new downloadable video collection, which went online this fall. Anyone with an Allegheny County library card can access the 700 titles, which include Broadway shows, exercise videos, and children’s programs. These selections join CLP’s other modern media offerings, such as downloadable audio books and ebooks, streaming music, and Playaways, digital players preloaded with audio books.

Suggestions Welcome

Although much of Library 2.0 hinges on technology, Collins describes it as a way to look at everything that libraries provide, including hours of operation, kinds of services, and the methods used to provide those services. As libraries incorporate more input and suggestions from their patrons, they become community centers.

Ingrid Kalchthaler, head of youth services at Bethel Park Public Library says that Library 2.0 “means making the library a more user-friendly place.” As part of this mindset, Bethel Park enables patrons to suggest – and even spearhead – new programs. When a mother suggested a mother-daughter reading club, library staff allowed her to lead the program. This type of customer input and leadership is a great way to meet community needs without overburdening library staff members’ already heavy workloads.

Bethel Park Public Library is also a big proponent of connecting with patrons in other ways. In addition to its main website, it has at least nine other websites and blogs, covering everything from book and movie reviews to a homeschoolers group. The library even produces its own TV show.

“At the heart of [our approach] is giving respect to the patrons and allowing them to reclaim the idea that the library is their library because it’s funded through their taxes,” Kalchthaler explains.
Jennifer McGuiggan, a freelance writer and editor, is owner of The Word Cellar. Her last article for Pop City was about green neighborhood development. To read it click here


The Bamboo Courtyard at the Carnegie Main Library in Oakland

"It's Your Space" - the Teen Room at Main

Library Patrons

Elevator at the Squirrel Hill Branch

Patrons Online in Oakland

Reading in Squirrel Hill

Staircase in Oakland

All photographs copyright © Brian Cohen

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