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Public libraries fight to stay relevant in digital age

Already facing tight budgets, public libraries are also contending with a cultural shift from traditional stacks of books to digital devices. But far from fighting the digital revolution, libraries are joining it.

By David KarasContributor / June 27, 2011

Miguel Lopez (l.) watches videos with a friend on a public library computer in Denver. The city is threatening to shutter half its libraries.

Kristen Wyatt/AP

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These days, it isn't business as usual at the Garden City Public Library in Michigan. The building is intact and the collection of books is in good shape, but no staff or patrons are on hand. That's because the library, which is just outside Detroit, closed its doors on June 17.

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"It just floors me that this has come to happen here," said the library's director, James Lenze, the day before the closure. He attributed the shutdown to a reorganization of the town's financial priorities in a tumultuous economy.

The local institution is just one of America's public libraries that has struggled in recent years to stay afloat. A majority of states have reported library closures in the past 12 months, according to the American Library Association. While most of those states estimated that one or two branches shut down, some reported five to 10 closing their doors, which ALA says is part of a trend.

Many more libraries have tried to stay open by cutting back on operating hours.

While there is no question that tight government budgets have been a big factor in these reductions, some people point to a shift from traditional stacks of books and periodicals to digital devices that can be used for reading and information gathering.

Yet many librarians, vowing to avoid the fate of the Garden City library, are not taking these problems lying down. Far from fighting the digital revolution, they're joining it by greatly expanding libraries' electronic offerings. They're also emphasizing some of the free things in a library that go beyond books – including children's programs and an experienced staff that can help with everything from research to job hunts.

It's all an effort to try to ensure that such institutions are a vibrant and relevant part of communities, which could then make it harder for funding to be cut or for buildings to be closed.

"A physical library is more than just a collection of books," says Alan Inouye, director of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy in Washington.

In the past few years, more than 66 percent of US libraries have expanded their digital offerings, ALA says. The most common step: giving patrons the ability to browse virtual stacks and download titles to electronic devices.

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