Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Doomed? Victoria's public libraries are booming

This article is part of the Globe B.C.'s annual series examining "Things That Work."

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
december 22, 2010


The public library, like this newspaper, is supposed to be doomed by the information revolution.

Who needs an encyclopedia when you have Google?

Who needs a library when you have a computer in your lap more powerful than the one that sent man to the moon?

Who needs a librarian when you have a smartphone beyond even what Star Trek’s writers imagined just a few years ago?

Yet, when you mosey on down to any of the outlets of the Greater Victoria Public Library — from the Oak Bay branch, which incorporates a heritage house, to the Bruce Hutchison branch, part of the Saanich Commonwealth Place with its pool in which kiddies splash and Olympians train, to the sprawling Central Library, where the homeless share computer terminals alongside businessmen and retirees — you will be pressed to find an unoccupied chair.

The public library is booming.

Last year, library materials in the Victoria system were borrowed or renewed 5,978,750 times, a record circulation.

At the Central, where the public area takes up two floors of an unappealing government office complex, the bustle is notable all through the day. Much of the library, though hushed, is no longer quiet space. Patrons talk about books and movies, asides are shared by surfers at computer terminals, teenagers multitask while ostensibly completing homework.

This is what librarians think of as the Third Space — not work, not home, but just as essential a part of the daily routine.

The patrons who attend a bricks-and-mortar branch are only the top of the iceberg, as other users are at home and the office, accessing online databases.

Not so long ago, a reader seeking a science-fiction story by Isaac Asimov needed to come to the library, where they found a large piece of wooden furniture holding sliding drawers. Thousands of 3-by-5-inch cards, arranged alphabetically, held typewritten — or, if old enough, handwritten — details, including author, title, and the call number devised according to Melvil Dewey’s eponymous decimal classification system. Having found the number and either memorizing it, or writing it on another piece of paper, the hard-working patron wandered through the stacks to find their deserved prize.

Today, a holder of a library card searches the catalogue, renews titles, or places a hold by consulting the MoCat mobile catalogue through their mobile device. You can download an audiobook. You can pay fines online. Even had Mr. Asimov imagined such a world, it would have seemed too far-out to be believable. The wooden card catalogue is now a museum piece, a collectable used by some to hold candy, or fishing lures, or other small miscellanea.

It is a great age to live in a democratic society where little stands in the way of the free flow of misinformation. Enter the trained, practical, curious, intelligent, organized librarian.

“We help people navigate the sea of information,” said Matthew Bingham, librarian supervisor at Victoria’s Central branch.

“There is so much information out there, but how much of it is good information? The library can help people filter the good from the bad.”

The library holds computer classes (with such topics as “introduction to email” and “evaluating web sources”). One librarian teaches a course about online investment sites.

In the new year, the library will begin lending Kobo eReaders as part of its Library to Go downloadable audio and ebook service. No late fees! When the due date arrives, the ebook vanishes.

As for reference requests, the number of telephone calls is in decline. Patrons want virtual reference. A program called “Ask Now” is soon to be launched, offering answers to chat questions in real time. (Gosh, the emailed “Ask a Librarian” service is already feeling like so yesterday.)

Librarians are a passionate — though not always demonstrative — bunch. They are ardent defenders of freedom of information.

Mr. Bingham, 31, got his first library job as a page at age 16, a position he held for eight years. “A page is the glue that holds this place together,” he said. “They shelve the books, they check the books in, they do a lot of odd jobs.”

A voracious reader at an early age, he loved the quietness of the library and the thrill of finding an unexpected book.

Children are also well served by a library that has such programs as the Summer Reading Club. Last year, the theme was “Follow the Reader,” which promoted the notion that readers go on to become leaders. A total of 4,490 children aged 12 or under willingly spent their summer vacation between covers.

Children build and program robots as part of Lego Mindstorm Robotics. Older teens can borrow video games.

“Why not? It’s a form of literacy,” said Tracy Kendrick, coordinator of children’s and teen services. “In this world, content is key. The format can be any format. You can have a story that is a book, a movie, an audiobook, a website, a video game. All the same story, but in a different format.”

Her own first experiences came as a girl growing up in a rural community, where she eagerly awaited a visit to the bookmobile.

The library still has a chess club and, in the next months, will launch a manga club focusing on the popular Japanese cartoon style.

A cut in provincial funding threatened the $13,000 Books for Babies program at the end of 2009. The library found new sponsors in the Steve Nash Foundation and the TD Bank Financial Group Fund, so that a kit including a CD and book, as well as brochures about the benefits of early literacy were distributed for free to 2,000 parents of newborns in Victoria.

A librarian recently sent out an email notice under the subject heading: “Old gems from Surrey Libraries need a new home.” The five titles include poetry, a selection of ballads of the Pacific Northwest, a history of the Dominion Rubber Co. of Montreal, a two-volume guide to steam and gas turbines, and the “Automatic Record Changer Manual, Vol. 3,” compiled by Howard W. Sams & Co., issued circa 1950, on the cusp of the rock ’n’ roll era.

A quick search on Google reveals that the Indianapolis publisher of technical manuals is still in business. The only other question is, What’s a record changer?

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