When Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea of a public library, he probably didn’t have in mind that the face of the library – its librarians – as well as card catalogs, cozy chairs and fireplaces, and stacks upon stacks of books would no longer be a retreat for bookworms and the well-educated.
Instead, some of the 16,700 public libraries around the country are headed in quite a different direction.
Faced with layoffs and budget cuts, or in search of ways to reach out a constant on-the-go society, libraries around the U.S. are replacing the traditional, full-service establishments with new approaches and machines to do what libraries do best – provide books, research and entertainment to the eyes and ears of the public.
For instance, a library in St. Paul, Minn., now features a Library Express, or a full stack of digitally-locked, compartment-sized lockers outside city hall. The lockers provide books or DVDs to patrons who have placed an online order that they can pick up at a date of their choice.
Mesa, Ariz., plans to soon debut an "express" library in a strip-mall, open three days a week, with outdoor kiosks to dispense books and DVDs at all hours of the day. Meanwhile, Palm Harbor, Fla., has offset the impact of reduced hours by installing glass-front vending machines that dispense DVDs and books.
This wouldn’t all be possible without a movement aided by companies that have produced new machines that help libraries save on costs. For example, Indianapolis-based Evanced Solutions, which creates library software, will begin trials this month on a new vending machine that may hit the market in 2011.
Of course, many familiar with the centuries-old system aren’t too sure about this innovation that could downplay what a library stands for. James Lund, director of the Red Wing Public Library in Red Wing, Minn., recently wrote about the “vending library” in Library Journal.
"The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker," Lund said in an interview. "Our real mission is public education and public education can't be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction."
Despite the cutbacks on staffing and hours that libraries are implementing to skim on costs, an uneven ratio of demand to leaner resources remains. This is demonstrated in the fact that libraries often have rather long waiting lists for high-demand reading materials, and this probably can’t be solved by any “Library Express” or book kiosk.
Would Mr. Franklin be disappointed in this new chapter of advancements for libraries? Likely.
Tammy Wolf is a TMCnet copy editor. Previously she was assistant to the editor at The Darien Times, a weekly newspaper in Darien, Conn., where she edited submissions, did page layout and design and helped manage the newspaper's website. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.
Edited by Tammy Wolf