This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

June 29, 2006 - successful libraries offer mix of services

There's a common misconception about libraries.

In brief, a lot of politicians seem to think that technology competes against libraries -- and that libraries are losing.

This is something former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin called the "Displacive Fallacy." It's the idea that new technologies drive out old.

But the truth is, they often coexist quite comfortably. TV didn't kill radio. DVDs didn't kill movies. Both radio and movies make far more money than they ever did.

The Internet didn't kill books. And public libraries are doing quite well, thank you.

A friend of mine, Dr. Keith Curry Lance, is the director of the Library Research Service, based right here in Colorado. He's a professional number-cruncher, a guy who tries to use data to get at the truth of things in library land.

The Library Research Service (www.lrs.org) regularly produces something it calls Fast Facts: quick surveys or statistical analyses on hot topics. In this case, the topic was "what's the relationship between number of public Internet terminals in the library, and other use statistics?"

To put it another way, when you add public Internet stations, how does this affect such traditional measurements of library activity as visits (tabulated by gate counts), circulation (number of items actually checked out), and questions asked of our reference librarians?

Talk to politicians in some cities, and they'll say visits may go up -- because people are coming in to use those Internet stations -- but people won't be checking things out, and they sure won't be asking reference questions. They'll be looking up things for themselves.

Well, that's wrong.

Lance went back to the last year for which there was complete national data (2003) and compared those four statistics: number of public computers, visits, circulation, and reference questions.

The story is pretty clear: the more computers, the more activity of all kinds.

Lance concludes that the strongest connection is indeed between computers and visits. But statistically speaking, all of them are at least moderately correlated.

The presence of computers certainly did not reduce the number of checkouts or reference questions. Or as Lance writes, "Traditional and Internet-based library services are not an either-or proposition."

The report is careful to point out that adding computers is not a direct cause of other increased use. It may well be that libraries doing things right in the area of choosing materials for checkout, and hiring competent reference librarians, are also doing the right thing when they add public computers.

Public libraries have stepped into the role of "closing the digital divide" -- providing public access to the Internet, even in the poorest communities. That's a good thing.

But it's clear that it's not the only thing that's good, or the only thing that people want. Today's public libraries are successful precisely when they strike a balance, offering a mix of services.

Public libraries must offer public access not only to the cutting edge technologies of tomorrow, but also to the organized evidence of the past, and the vital community energy of the present.

And mostly, they do.

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