Can Libraries Stay Relevant in the Digital Age?

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Tuesday night is story night at the DeWitt Public Library.

"They read stories. They make crafts," parent Finley Bolenbaugh said. He says it's a good chance for his child to learn to read and interact with others.

To continue that kind of programming and everything the library does, a third-party study concluded the DeWitt library needs more room.

"We needed over 31,000 square feet to serve our public in general over the next twenty years," DeWitt Library Director Rene Prado said. "We are serving our public right now with 5,600 square feet."

The DeWitt Library Board voted Tuesday night to sign a contract with an Ann Arbor-based architecture firm to begin a series of public meetings. The meetings will attempt to determine what the public wants in a library, and whether citizens would be willing to pay for it.

A new library would likely require a special millage beyond the facility's current half-mill operating fund.

(The library serves the city and township of DeWitt as well as
Watertown Township and the northern halves of Olive and Riley townships.)

But with all the emphasis on digital technology and expanded access to the internet at home, does it make sense to put taxpayer money toward a bricks-and-mortar library?

"Regardless of where we are 20 or 40 years from now, this is not going to go away," Prado said, pulling a book off of a shelf.

More bricks-and-mortar means more space for books, but technology takes up space, too.

"Even in DeWitt, as wonderful as this community is, not everybody has a computer," Prado said.

So the library has internet access computers -- an expanded facility would have room for more. DeWitt even has wireless internet for people who bring in their own computer.

The Capital Area District Library is looking at wireless as well.

Assistant Director Maureen Hirten says despite the rise in home technology, use of the library doesn't seem to be slowing.

"If you just look around here, you see how many people come into a library on a daily basis," Hirten said. "Circulation is booming."

Library internet use is booming, too, in part because libraries have better, more accurate databases than the average internet can access. Libraries have trained staff to help.

And, the librarians say, the facilities are again becoming a gathering place for the communities they serve.

"We have cooking shows," Prado said. "We have classes on how to use digital cameras."

Services that make the library a place for adult education, but of course, it's still the place for story time.