The photo of children listening to stories is clearly dated. Old-fashioned clothing is the giveaway.
Although taken in 1912 at the St. Louis Public Library, the activity itself — children’s storytime — has never gone out of style.
“Storytimes are as busy as ever, and we still do them well,” says Waller McGuire, who has hung the 100-year-old photo outside his office as executive director.
In the 21st century, however, stories might be read from iPads, which hold dozens of books. Truck drivers download audio books to take on the road, and lawyers in Singapore email a Midwest librarian for information on trademarks.
“We’re like retail stores, banks, media,” McGuire says, “trying to understand how we can best serve people using new technology.”
Curiously, however, studies show that residents are often unaware of the vast updates, and challenges, as libraries grapple with 21st-century changes.
As the city’s historic Central Library finishes a $70 million renovation, celebrating with a fancy party this weekend, the St. Louis County Library begins planning its own construction projects.
County voters this month approved a tax rate increase, signaling confidence in the future of their system’s 20 buildings. It will be a “renaissance for libraries in the St. Louis region,” says Charles Pace, the county library director.
Both directors say updated facilities are essential — but they are not the only changes taking place in these public institutions.
“I still get people who are surprised we have DVDs,” Pace says.
Although many peopledoknow about free movies, they really are old news.
Not only do 21st-century public libraries have free movies, they also may:
• Help people start small businesses.
• Offer phone apps to download books from home.
• Lend out e-readers or show patrons how to use various devices.
• Offer free online courses or access to expensive genealogy databases.
In addition, even though much conventional wisdom brays that children don’t read, evidence shows that library usage among teens and young adults is strong.
A study released last month showed that readers under age 30 are more likely to use public libraries. Sixty percent of those readers — compared with 49 percent of people over 64 — said they visited the public library at least once in the year before the survey, according to a Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
Perhaps surprisingly, readers under 30 werelesslikely to read an e-book than readers 30-39. Twenty-five percent of the latter group reported that they had read a digital text.
Overall, library users told Pew that they want it all: e-books and print books, plus audiobooks, movies, magazines, newspapers, computers and wireless service.
The Brentwood Public Library recently bought Kindle e-readers, which patrons may take home (they have tracking devices inside so they don’t disappear). Some of the Kindles come pre-loaded with several books in a particular genre, such as mysteries or romances.
When the city’s Central Library reopens Dec. 9, it will have added about 50 iPads, which it plans to circulate. Phone apps are being developed to help patrons navigate the building.
Today’s public library is trying to be “nimble and stay in touch with the community,” the county library’s Pace says.
In an email a week after voters approved the county tax increase, Pace said the revenue is important not only to make repairs, but to implement the “latest advances in the library industry.”
Although no final decisions have been made, Pace says the county library’s future may include a “digital content creation lab, small-business incubator space, (and) Makerspaces, which incorporate 3-D printing and other new technologies.”
The library is responding, as he says, to a world that has gone from “information scarcity to information abundance,” and yet its community-driven mission isn’t always that different from the one of libraries a century ago.
the carnegie legacy
Some of the first public libraries had not only books, but billiard rooms and basketball courts.
The Carnegie Library of Homestead in Pennsylvania still rents out a heated indoor pool and holds concerts in its music hall.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, steel baron Andrew Carnegie gave millions of dollars to help create thousands of public libraries. Among his gifts was $1 million to help build a new St. Louis Public Library and six branches. Central Library, a beautiful building designed by architect Cass Gilbert, opened in January 1912.
Tonight, the library’s sold-out fundraising gala celebrates the building’s centennial and features an honorary chairman: Vartan Gregorian, current president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York and past president of the New York Public Library (and father of Post-Dispatch sports reporter Vahe Gregorian).
Gregorian, who will talk at the black-tie party about the future of libraries, says he is coming to celebrate not only Carnegie’s legacy, but St. Louis’ library as a symbol of the city’s “durability and memory.”
In a recent telephone conversation from his home in New York, he emphasized the grand, historical mission of America’s free public libraries as a “symbol of lifelong learning” and a place providing every person with privacy and access to information.
“They are the most democratic institutions,” he says.
Not only can immigrants learn to read at many libraries, they have a base to stay connected to their legacy and learn about a new culture.
“You go to the library to connect with the universe,” Gregorian says. “It is one of the most indespensible institutions.”
Gregorian, born in Iran of Armenian heritage, recalls that when he became president of the New York Public Library, it had thousands of phone books from different countries. Rather than seeing these as crumbling relics, he says some, such as a 1939 Warsaw directory, are historic or legal documents.
“Libraries are not just about books,” Gregorian said. “They are about the memory of a society.”
When he was hired at the New York library in 1981, it was essentially bankrupt. He collaborated with rich socialites such as Brooke Astor to raise money. A story last month in The New York Times said library fund-raisers at that time rivaled state dinners, with guests such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Norman Mailer.
Gregorian, an expert at talking up the value of libraries, raised hundreds of millions of dollars while head of the New York library, which had been virtually bankrupt.“Shrouds have no pockets,” he says. “You can’t take it with you.”
His fear is only that Americans today are more interested in entertainment than learning.
He has an e-reader, which is used mostly by his wife. A self-described “reading junkie,” he is always curious. But it doesn’t matter to him whether people borrow print books or e-books: “The main thing is that people read.”
At the St. Louis County Library, usage has grown. Its 2011 report shows total visits to all locations at 5.7 million, with more than 12.7 million items circulated.
Pace, the library director, says his system’s goal is to offer items people will use, so thousands of books that are never checked out have been removed from shelves. In 2011, the county actually “deleted” more books than it added: 303,241 to 259,513.
E-media circulation has almost doubled, and e-book growth is a goal, and a concern, for libraries across the country because some publishers will not sell new e-books to libraries. In addition, e-book versions sometimes cost libraries far more than a print book. (The American Library Association continues to ask publishers for better agreements.)
The county library added Wi-Fi to all of its libraries only six years ago. Now it offers online classes to help patrons learn computer programs such as Excel or Photoshop. This year, the library also collaborated with the University of Missouri Extension office for meetings to support those running a small businesses.
Even though 30 percent of the county library’s circulation is actually people borrowing DVDs, library card holders also can go to the library for free access toAncestry.com, a database that millions of people buy for genealogy research. Researchers can find rare genealogy records held at the county headquarters, which has more than 18,000 family histories.
Although many people think most information is online, librarians know that actually just a fraction of material is digital. And even if residents have Internet and computers at home, they still often call librarians for help.
Rather than asking for factual tidbits, residents now seek advice on using PowerPoint or sending a job application to a company website. “Very often their instinct is to come to the library for help,” McGuire says.
“We’re discovering that the Internet brings people to us more than it takes them away,” he notes.
When Central Library reopens, it will include far more powerful wireless service, power outlets on tables, a cafe, an auditorium and more public space.
Eventually, the library may even rent out some of its space, although don’t expect to book it for a wedding, like Carrie Bradshaw does the New York library in Hollywood’s “Sex and the City.”
McGuire says that for at least the first six months, events there will be only library events. He is interested in making renovated spaces available for rent like those at the St. Louis Art Museum, but they likely will be for organizations and corporations, not personal parties.
Although the county and city systems’ renovations are the most visible in the area, many other library systems continue to change and grow.
Maggie Preiss has been with the St. Charles City-County Library since 1973. “We’ve been building or expanding every other year for 35 years,” she says.
Like the other libraries, St. Charles’ system aims to be both a place for people to meet and gather, and also to use remotely. The new Spencer Road branch in St. Peters has about 17 meeting spaces — which patrons go online to reserve.
Presiss says the biggest challenge is “being ready for whatever is coming around the corner.”
The biggest surprise? “People still see the library as a place for books.”