Amid Changing Technology, West Virginia's Public Libraries Maint - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Amid changing technology, West Virginia's public libraries maintain relevance

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Photo courtesy of Wood County Library. Wood County Library’s 2009 summer reading program was packed with eager children. Photo courtesy of Wood County Library. Wood County Library’s 2009 summer reading program was packed with eager children.
Computer terminals at the Doddridge County Library branch in West Union are available for patrons. Computer terminals at the Doddridge County Library branch in West Union are available for patrons.
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A long line snakes around the circulation desk. Three librarians behind the counter are busy answering questions and checking out books, and decorations announcing the beginning of the annual summer reading program for children adorn the walls. 

This is the Parkersburg branch of the Wood County Public Library — a system that includes three other branches serving more than 77,000 people and nearly 14,000 registered borrowers. 

And although Parkersburg is not rural, the library still serves, in a way, as the center of the community. Brian Raitz, county director, said many people who use the library's services don't even have a library card.

"There are guys in the library who don't even have a library card and have been coming here for years," Raitz said. "They come in and read the newspapers, the magazines, relax, they go to meetings in here. They use it as a resource."

So that raises the question: Are people still using libraries for its basic purpose — to check out books?

The answer is yes, and much more.

A community resource

Every county in West Virginia is home to a library — even if it's just one. And no matter the size of the community, many libraries across the state offer meeting rooms, communal spaces and free high-speed Internet, a commodity that can't be found in many rural homes. 

Raitz said that even in a community the size of Parkersburg, people still come to the library to use the Internet.

"That's one of the functions of the library," he said. "We've always been a resource for Internet access and computer technology. Even with DSL making big leaps within West Virginia and across the state, there is still a big need for high-speed Internet access for the public. One of the things that often comes up is people who have Internet access at home for some reason or other need a printer. They don't have a printer at home so they come in here, or if their computer goes down for some reason. They need to contact the company to do something or they need to print out their resume. Where do they come? They come to the library."

And the same is true in Pocahontas County. Although fewer than 9,000 people call the county home, the library system offers five branches throughout the county. Library Director Vicky Terry said although branches in her system have their differences, they all have one thing in common.

"I think the interesting thing is that each of the communities that has a library, they're all very different communities," she said. "Every community has different strengths and different needs.  But the thing that's common among all the branches in Pocahontas County is that they're like little community centers. People meet here, people will come in and drop something off and say ‘I'm dropping this off. Joe will pick it up in an hour.' That happens a lot. I think people really consider the libraries as a hub of the community. I think people really do use our libraries that way. We have a lot of groups that meet here, in addition to the typical things libraries do which is check out books and materials."

And in Doddridge County, the West Union branch rents space to community organizations. Housed in the old opera house, the library rents space on its second floor to the Hope Inc., a nonprofit domestic violence organization, the Solid Waste Authority, Doddridge County Economical Development and Antero Oil and Gas. 

But in addition to housing those four organizations, Director Cathy Ash said West Union residents use the library itself as a resource.

"I like to think we're like a community center," she said. "We get all kinds of phone calls about everything that I would never imagine people would call the library and ask about."

Too busy to read?

It's not just adults using the library. Kids still come in for help on projects and research papers for school, and younger kids still enjoy story time and summer reading programs. 

"One of our goals is to share the love of reading," Raitz said. "That's why you do the summer reading program and book challenges like the West Virginia Reads 150. It's to keep people interested in reading. Reading is something that is learned. You learn to love reading and it helps you in everything you do. It changes the way your brain thinks. You have deeper thoughts and can think through problems. You're not a shallow thinker. You're not bopping like a pinball from one subject to another. Readers have deeper thinking. Schools are dealing with that right now because they're trying to think of ways to get kids to read. This is something we've been doing for a long time."

Allison Fisher, who is a school librarian at George Washington High School in Charleston, said she thinks public libraries do a great job of appealing to younger audiences, although some teens might slip through the cracks.

"I think they have a very, very strong program as far as getting teens and children interested," Fisher said. "I think it's difficult for them in some ways to get the high school kids interested. I've found they are so involved in their classes and what they have to read for English that they don't spend a lot of time pleasure reading."

But for younger people who do like to read for pleasure, the differences are noticeable. Erin Gallagher, who studies communications at West Virginia State University, said developing a love of reading helped shape her career goals.

"I learned how to read when I was little, before kindergarten," she said. "I loved learning how to read and getting into the adventures books can give you. I became a writer myself."

The library is an important part of school curriculum in many parts of the state. However, not all schools have a library.

That's where the public library often steps in. In Marlinton, the McClintock branch is situated catty-corner from the elementary school, meaning students have nearly unfettered access to the local branch and all it can provide.

"When they're in school, every class comes to the library once a week and we have a class here for them on library skills, we read stories and it's an on-going school-length program and they get to check out books," Terry said. "So the library here and the library in Hillsboro both serve as libraries for the elementary schools."

But once those kids move on to middle school, they begin to lose interest in the library. Part of that, Terry said, is because of location and lack of transportation. 

"I feel bad about that," Terry said. "I'd like to see more middle school kids and high school kids come here. But I know a lot of it does depend on transportation."

In Wood County, lack of transportation also prevents students from accessing the library, especially during the summer months. Raitz said the bookmobile will visit four Energy Express sites throughout the county each week. Some schools also have their own versions of summer reading programs. 

"One … teacher says she wants 200 applications for all her kids because they come from a community where it's difficult for them to get a mile and a half to the South Parkersburg library because of transportation," Raitz said. "If it's not within walking distance, they can't do it. They said, ‘If you can bring the bookmobile over here, we'd be happy to get the kids cards so they can check out books during the summer. Can you do that?' and its like, ‘Yes, yes, we can do that.'"

At the high school level, Fisher said she works closely with teachers to provide the materials and books students will need throughout the school year. For example, she'll meet with the English and social studies teachers to determine what projects or research papers students will complete, and from there they'll determine which books students can use as sources. But students' use of the library doesn't end when English class is over.

"GW is unique in that our students have off-periods," Fisher said. "They use the library to study together. I have sometimes between 30 and 100 students in the library."

Fisher has found that students entering George Washington, whether they have a public or private school background, already know how to use the library. As a middle school librarian for seven years, Fisher said she spent time showing students where books can be found, teaching the Dewey Decimal system and helping students access information on online databases. But the differences in how students are taught and what they learn are different from public school to private school.

"I find that the private school kids either know it or catch onto it faster or have used something similar," Fisher said. "I don't know what the Bible Center (School) set up is for the library. But it seems the Charleston Catholic kids catch on faster."

That's because a lot of those students are introduced to the library at an early age. When they come to George Washington and are shown how they can place holds on books through the Kanawha County Public Library system, many students already know their library card and pin numbers, Fisher said.

And though it could be said that families that are better off financially can spend more time with their children at the library, that's not necessarily the case, Fisher said.

"I want to say yes because I think parents who have a college background or are who more well off spend more time with their kids showing them how to use the library," she said. "At the same time, I have a lot of low (socioeconomic status) kids at my school who take advantage of being connected to the public library who may have stumbled up on it in elementary or middle school."

Changing technology

One way the library is staying relevant is through technology. Gallagher said she's noticed the Kanawha County library system using Facebook to communicate with patrons and advertise its programs. 

"The library (in downtown Charleston) is using Facebook to draw in more people with their families and movie night with their friends," she said. "I think if they continue to embrace new technology, I think they'll continue to draw in more people to come in and maybe check out tablets and things and figure out how to use the library."

Embracing technology is not a new concept to the library. Technology has always been changing, but the pace has picked up drastically over the past 20 years. And the library is often ahead of the curve.

"I would say since I've been here, over the past 10 years, I've seen more people get their own computers and have Internet access at home than I did when I first started here," Terry said. "When I first started here, the computers were used a lot because a lot of people didn't have computers or Internet access. But I think more people do. Having said that, our computers are still busy on any given day."

Library computers across the state are maintained by the West Virginia Library Commission. Commission Secretary Karen Goff said the state takes advantage of the E-Rate program to fund Internet service to all of the state's libraries. But, as with most things with the library, that program has its own set of challenges. 

"We get a discount on it because of the E-Rate program, but that discount doesn't come until you pay the whole bill," Goff said. "Then you have to file the reimbursement, so that means you have to have the money up front to pay the bill first. The reimbursement comes in, it isn't like you send in a coupon and you get it the next day. It's months, and lots and lots of paperwork."

John Paul Myrick, library development director and coordinator with the Library Commission, said he would guess that without the E-Rate program, about 70 percent of the state's libraries would be unable to afford Internet service. So why does the Library Commission spend so much time and effort in maintaining Internet service to libraries across the state? It's because patrons expect it.

"Patrons can go to the same facilities around the state and get the same basic level of service and the basic same level of information resources," Myrick said. 

According to the Library Commission's 2012 report, the state's public libraries include a total of 1,405 Internet terminals for patrons, and the number of annual users of public Internet resources is nearly 1.3 million. The number of people who log on to the Internet wirelessly exceeds 110,000. 

And as high-speed Internet access becomes more widely available, librarians said the number of people they see coming in to use the computers is changing.

"Computers are used for job resumes, searching for jobs, college classes. Kids come in here and check their email, Facebook, things like that," Ash said. 

But the way people access information has an affect on library circulation. Raitz said he thinks people are spending more time online or on their smart phones, and reading takes a backseat.

"People just aren't reading as much as they used to," he said. "There are still those hardcore people who use the library and will continue to use the library. The technology is changing our collection development. Throughout the years, the libraries have had to adapt as new technology comes along."