America's libraries are alive and well. Just ask Google. A series of online reports over the past year shows that America's 9,000 public libraries are moving fast to meet the challenges of the digital age. This transformation can be a lesson for Hillsborough County as it looks to create a 21st-century experience for its main library in downtown Tampa.
Just as it has revolutionized everything from communication to commerce, the Internet has changed the uses and expectations of the public library system. But new findings, including a series of reports by the Pew Research Center, underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, show that libraries continue to hold a vaunted place in their communities, both because of their traditional role and their ability to adapt.
Book lending remains a vital service, these surveys found. And that won't change anytime soon, given that about 80 percent of the 1 billion materials available for circulation nationwide is in print, mostly books. Libraries, though, are shifting resources to electronic holdings, putting music and audio books onto shelves and online. They are also changing the size and layout of libraries to create hanging-out space where people can use their own laptops or tablets to access the collection, complete a project or merely kill time by browsing the Web or sending email.
The reports make a couple things clear. Libraries are still valued as public places. Of those polled by Pew, three-fourths said it was important to have a safe and quiet place to learn and to seek help from a librarian. For lower-income people, libraries provide the computer needed to research an issue, find a job or file for benefits. Virtual learning, in other words, is only one aspect of the much broader mission of the modern library. So libraries still need a physical presence in their communities. And digital offerings do not make libraries self-service; rather, they demand new skill sets so librarians can continue their teaching roles.
Hillsborough should mind these lessons in the coming months as it updates its master plan for the main library, called the John F. Germany library, in downtown Tampa. Hillsborough has already addressed the shift in how its libraries are used by taking out shelves and installing more booths in some facilities. Remaking the Germany library, though, is a huge opportunity to make the main library stronger and more relevant. That could mean a smarter footprint, new space for digital production and a coffeehouse feel so the library becomes more of a public square. If anything, the rise in digital has breathed new life into libraries, and in Tampa as in elsewhere, that renewed focus on libraries is breathing life into downtowns, too.