Keeping up with tech: Libraries persevere in the 21st century

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The 21st century has brought about innovation in technology, from the advancement of the internet, cell phones to smart phones, tablets, social media and more.

And with people able to access media from the comfort of their homes, libraries in Maricopa County have been adapting to that change. But as one county official points out, that is not the case for everyone.

Cindy Kolaczynski, director of the Maricopa County Library District, met with the Daily Independent in August to discuss the ins and outs of Maricopa County libraries and how libraries overall continue to remain relevant amid new technologies.

“Our mission is to help be in those areas that are unserved or undeserved. And I think we do that quite well,” Ms. Kolaczynski said about the MCLD. “If you go to Aguila, if you go to Gila Bend, not every household has internet. And so, you see how the library’s an integral part of what happens day to day.”

Out in Aguila, for example, Ms. Kolaczynski said off-duty migrant workers will line the floors of the local library because that might be their only access point to home.

“It’s that kind of education to everyone that we need to ensure,” Ms. Kolaczynski said. “Yeah, it’s a mobile society now, but not everyone still has that ability to do that.”

And according to recent studies from the Pew Research Center, older adults, rural residents, those with lower levels of education and income, and racial minorities are less likely to have broadband service at home.

“Public libraries play a vital role for people of all ages by providing access to information, the internet, computers and devices,” said Sophia Solis, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. “If you live in rural Arizona, only 34% of residents have access to internet service meeting the FCC’s 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload benchmark standard for broadband speed.”

Ms. Kolaczynski stressed the importance of library officials working with the communities to ensure they are getting what they need. While the library sees its share of in-person customers, not all customers physically visit the library. Instead, some are mobile-only and are using the library’s digital products.

“We’re seeing a decrease in our physical circulation because we’re so much more now than just books and DVDs,” Ms. Kolaczynski said, to include digital audiobooks, downloadable music and videos, and online programs. “I think the physical book is obviously always going to be here. People still need that touch. People still need that presence. But there’s a whole generation of people that are just loving the digital aspect of it.”

However, she said that officials sometimes have to inform library users that not everything the library provides is available digitally.

“We cannot purchase every book title as an e-book,” Ms. Kolaczynski said. “No. 1, because publishers don’t allow it. And No. 2, now we’ve got some limitations on how we buy things. Publishers are putting stipulations on how many copies of e-materials we can buy, and how many uses it has to have before you can repurchase. That’s a whole education to our customers who think ‘Ok, everything we just grab out of the cloud and it’s just available.’”

Still, library officials continue to figure out what their customers need. The MCLD conducts annual surveys, asking people if officials are meeting their needs or what they can do to meet those needs.

“And that’s where our latest initiative with our no fines came about,” Ms. Kolaczynski said about the decision in 2019 to stop charging additional fees for overdue books. “We have learned that these fines were just punitive to those that need the library most. It was affecting children’s cards primarily. Once we were able to eliminate overdue fines, families now can be taking things home.

“In some of our rural places you’d hear caretakers come in and say, ‘Look at whatever you want while we’re here, but you can’t take it home.’ Now that we’ve kind of broken that barrier, it’s awesome to be able to say, ‘Yeah you can take it home. We still want all the materials back.’ And nothing else changed except the overdue fines. You’re still going to get charged for the material if you don’t bring it back.”

Libraries still serve as community hubs, something officials said people can’t get at home. And in Maricopa County, people must visit a library in to obtain a library card that grants them access to online services — even those who will only use the library’s digital products.

“We still want people to come,” Ms. Kolaczynski said. “I think all of us who work in libraries, or who just work in community services, continue to hear ‘I didn’t know the library did that, I didn’t know you had downloadable audio books or you can stream music, or you can download music and then keep it.’ Stream movies from our site right onto your TV at home... It’s an ongoing conversation because people really don’t understand all that we have to offer now, which is pretty substantial.”

Ms. Solis with the Secretary of State said libraries are also key players in disseminating government and business information.

“For example, public libraries throughout Arizona are at the table when Census 2020 Complete Count Committees are formed,” she said. “It’s critical for hard-to-count areas of the state to be able to offer internet access during the first online decennial census.”

Another example is the availability of news subscriptions, which Ms. Solis said aren’t always affordable to individuals.

Michael Beck, the chief librarian for Glendale, said the city’s libraries are keeping up with the use of technology at home by staying abreast of the latest technology and service trends that are occurring in the profession and in the marketplace.

“While some resources are readily available at home, the Glendale Library, and libraries in general, offer a number of unique services that include online Brainfuse tutoring services for students on a variety of subjects which is free to library patrons,” Mr. Beck said. “Also, Hoopla is a multi-service streaming tool which provides free downloads to patrons on thousands of books, music, audiobooks and movies. Since the format is digital, the item simply goes away at the end of the loan period, have no fines and no late-night visit to return library books before they are late.”

Mr. Beck touted the city’s libraries for having makerspace equipment, 3D-printers, small business centers, green-screen equipment, and over 2,000 free programs offered each year for patrons to attend. Those include learning something educational or recreational, job searching skills, early literacy youth programs, and teen coding classes. The library also offers the ability to get out of home, meet and interact with new people, and learn new skills or hobbies.

Starting new libraries

Through intergovernmental agreements, the Maricopa County Library District partners with municipalities to operate buildings, which the cities and towns build and provide. In fact the only libraries the MCLD owns are White Tank Library in Waddell, and two libraries in Sun Lakes and Aguila.

The MCLD also has partnerships with libraries in Sun City and Anthem, where the county pays for 100% of the operating costs while the building is provided.

In addition to the MCLD, 13 other independent library systems operate within Maricopa County. Those include Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Buckeye and Mesa.

“It’s kind of a complicated system but we partner together to ensure no matter where you live in Maricopa County — if you’re a Maricopa County resident — you can get a free library card with identification at any library, whether the county runs it or the municipality runs it,” Ms. Kolaczynski said. “We want to make it seamless for them to take advantage. It’s really important that people have access no matter where they are.”

In the upcoming years, Asante Library in Surprise is opening at the beginning of 2020. Surprise will pay the library district to operate it since they operate the city’s other two libraries.

Goodyear is another city embarking on a new library. Ms. Kolaczynski said that city determined one of its current libraries is too small, leading them to decide to build a new one as part of Goodyear’s new civic area near McDowell Road and Bullard Avenue. That library is expected to open in 2022 or 2023.

“This is the fastest growing county so the need will continue to be there,” Ms. Kolaczynski said. “Towns and cities are annexing more as well. It’s really based on need.”

For instance, Glendale in 2019 opened Heroes Regional Park Library. The city’s General Plan calls for a new facility when a service area or district reaches 35,000 residents.

In turn, the need for a new library is based on community desire/demand, available funding, council direction, among other reasons.

“In only ten weeks from its grand opening, from May 18th to July 31st, the new Heroes Library had seen over 11,000 visits, 8,500 checkouts, 60 public programs held with 1,800 attendees, 1,500 patron computer and tablet sessions, 850 new library card registrations and over 6,600 patron reference questions answered,” Mr. Beck said. “Libraries are far from death as libraries should be reflective of their communities, adaptive to new and changing technologies while offering unique services beyond and in addition to traditional library services.”

The need for a library is also being seen in the Queen Creek area, where town officials recently annexed land that is in Pinal County.

“We see a lot of citizens in Pinal County coming to Queen Creek, and I know there’s been conversation... they need an additional library in Pinal County,” Ms. Kolaczynski said.

“So the first question the community is going to ask is ‘What are my services, where are my kids going to go to school, where are my kids going to go to the library?’”

Queen Creek is currently reimbursing the county library district for those residents that live in their annexation area outside Maricopa County.

People who live outside of Maricopa County must pay $50 a year to get a library card, Ms. Kolaczynski said. She added that people around the state and country — in Flagstaff and the Midwest for example — have contacted the MCLD to purchase cards because they want to access some of the digital resources they have.

“Especially the classwork. You can get your certification for certain things for $50 instead of going somewhere. It’s pretty seamless,” she said.

Programs for teens/adults

According to statistics from the county, children up to age 12 attend library programs more than their teenager and adult counterparts. Ms. Kolaczynski attributed that to the need to prepare younger children for school.

“The difference for the younger crowds is the early literacy aspect,” she said. “There’s a bigger gap of things that are available to offer. We have a standard baby time, toddler time, preschool time. In addition, what we’re doing is ensuring there are some family programs, some intergenerational programs.”

For example, a program at Perry High School in Gilbert has students helping adults with technology.

“So you can do a cross-generational thing where, ‘Oh this teenager is the expert in some of these technologies,’ and they’re showing people how to download on their Kindle or they’re showing people how to download on their tablet, which I think is a really cool way to engage both of those age groups,” Ms. Kolaczynski said.

According to statistics from the Arizona State Library, the number of public library programs increased 5% from 2016 to 2017 — from 80,007 to 84,206 — and program attendance increased over 3% — from 1,625,149 to 1,679, 568.

In order to keep up with instant gratification at home, Mr. Beck said Glendale libraries are involved on social media to inform patrons of upcoming programs and events. Also, the library’s website acts as a “fifth” branch by being completely interactive. Patrons can always access resources and their library account to see if items are readily available, and reserve them so they are ready when the library opens. The library also offers email and instant notification for patrons on when items are due, overdue, and when their requests are available.

“No time delays in receiving print notifications; thereby saving both the material and staff time expense as well,” Mr. Beck said.

As technology continues to advance, Ms. Kolaczynski remains confident that libraries will remain relevant in their communities.

“It’s going to be the communities knowing they can come to us and say, ‘Hey this is what we need, this is what our community is needing now,” she said. “That will always keep us relevant because that is the way that that can happen. The initiative in Gila Bend, if we didn’t know that people could not get to where they needed to get to better their lives, to be able to get a degree or a GED, we would’ve never initiated that if we didn’t know. What ensures that we’re going to be around is that we keep the conversations and the communities engaged. We have to make those connections. I think we’ll continue to evolve. We’ve evolved a lot.”

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