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Public Libraries Ditched Card Catalogs. Are Computers Next?

Libraries once struggled to keep up with demand. Now branches are removing computers as they move toward a future built on providing a wide array of technology to patrons.

(FlickrCC/Montgomery County Public Libraries)
A sound that’s almost synonymous with visiting a quiet public library — the clacking of fingers on public computers — is slowly slipping toward possible extinction.

In analysis of public library data from across the country, Government Technology found that use of public computers in libraries has been on a steady decline for the last decade, a drop exacerbated by COVID-19 shutdowns and protocols.

While many libraries are back open to full operating hours, the use of public computers inside many branches hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

In fact, fewer people are stepping foot in the building at all.

Most patrons no longer have to physically enter a library to log on to its Internet or check something out. Books, audio and movies can now be borrowed digitally from the comfort of home. Many branches allow their free Wi-Fi to be accessed from the parking lot, rentable hot spots and even through bookmobiles that travel to neighborhoods.

While this digital transformation makes the library resources more convenient for many, some of these changes come with a hefty price tag. The societal shifts in how people use the Internet and consume media are leading some librarians to question what the future of library collections looks like and how added digital costs will fit into their local government’s budget.

Ditching Computer for Mobile Internet Access

In 1996, just one-quarter of libraries had public computers. By 2005, the American Library Association reported that free computer and Internet access existed in 98.9 percent of libraries. According to the ALA, at that time 85 percent of libraries were struggling to keep up with demand for public computer use, and visitor attendance numbers skyrocketed.

But the popularity of public computers changed as technology became easier and more affordable to purchase. According to open data from the Connecticut public library system, public computer demand in the state slowly decreased over time, from a high of nearly 6 million public computer sessions in 2006 to less than one million in 2022.

Data from the Chicago Public Library highlights a decline in public computer use around the same time Wi-Fi became accessible in the city’s branches. Although the number of visitors, Wi-Fi sessions and public computer use in Chicago have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, Wi-Fi use has rebounded faster than public computer sessions.
In Oregon, some library systems have significantly slashed the number of public computers located inside their branches. Tigard Public Library had 91 computers available for use in 2015; that number dropped to 59 by 2022.

“We reduced our number of public computers because we had more than enough to serve the patrons who needed them,” Amber Bell, reader services manager for the Tigard Public Library in Oregon, wrote to Government Technology in an email. “We have removed computers over time to make room for more public access power stations and USB charging ports, which many patrons need. We also check out in-house Chromebooks for more flexible computer use, and we have Chromebooks paired with Wi-Fi hot spots that patrons can check out.”
According to Bell, one reason for lower public computer use at her library is that the branch offers wireless printing, so patrons can send files from their phone or other computers to the printer instead of logging into a public computer.

Bell noted that the number of public computer sessions doesn’t tell the full story, and instead pointed to the library’s data on hours of computer use. According to Bell, patrons spent 14,452 hours on public computers at the Tigard Public Library from July 2021 to June 2022, a number that significantly increased in the last year to 18,599 in a shorter period from July 2022 to April 2023.

“Computer use has continued to increase, but has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels,” Bell said. “We definitely had different protocols during the last few years — a lot more sanitizing wipes were used, we shut down every other computer, and for a little while we asked people to have shortened sessions. At this point those protocols are no longer in place, but we still have lots of wipes available for those who want to use them.”

According to the ALA, the nature of public computer and Internet access use has changed significantly for libraries across the nation, as almost one-third now offer Internet hot spots for checkout. More than half have laptops available for checkout.

In 2023, the Salem Public Library launched a Library of Things collection, funded by a grant from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The collection grants people check-out access to technology such as a telescope, foldable drone, metal detector, 3D printer and a GoPro camera.

Salem Public Library Deputy City Librarian Bridget Esqueda told Government Technology in an email that it’s part of a shift in how the library serves its patrons, with a focus on digital access and filling current community needs.

“Libraries offer many more free resources and access online,” said Esqueda. “By offering online services, e-books and digital collections, many libraries have adapted to the digital age and made sure they are still relevant in the changing information landscape.”

Keeping Up with New Demands

While libraries struggled to meet the demand for public computers nearly 20 years ago, they’re now facing a new battle: keeping up with the popularity of digital resources like e-books, audio and video downloads.

For the first year in history in 2022, Oregon Public Libraries had more e-books in their local collections than physical books. They also had more digital audio and video resources for loan than physical resources.

However, the transition to digital material is complicated for libraries: Resources are often more expensive than their physical counterparts, and come with licenses that expire.

“Print books are generally governed by United States copyright laws — a library buys a book and then you have quite a few rights for that copy of the book. You can lend it out, resell it. For digital books, whether it’s e-books or digital audio books, you have few or none of these rights,” said Alan Inouye, interim associate executive director of public policy for ALA.

According to Inouye, digital resource prices are due to copyright and publishing restrictions.

“Of course we don’t own the digital copies, it’s a license for two years or 26 circulations or some specific time,” said Inouye. “A library, especially big libraries, has a role in society of preserving cultural heritage of the nation, and you can’t do that if you can’t actually have it. If the license expires in two years, then you’re stuck.”

Although digital resources — especially audio — are skyrocketing in popularity, Inouye doesn’t believe physical books will lose relevance anytime soon.

“Young people, Gen Z, actually really do like print books over digital books,” said Inouye. “Maybe seven, eight years ago some of us thought that the days of the print book were numbered, and now no one believes that because the print book is just as superior in important ways. Maybe it will happen 100 years from now, who knows?”

Library Buildings Remain Important

While data from Chicago, Oregon and Connecticut public library systems all shows overall visitor counts have been declining since well before the pandemic, Inouye noted that the physical buildings still provide an essential resource for patrons. Visitors will rent small library workspaces that have a power outlet, Wi-Fi and a light to do everything from studying to running a small business.

Even tech hubs like San Francisco have a loyal population of physical library users.

San Francisco conducts an annual city survey to measure residents’ satisfaction with government services, including libraries. The 2023 report revealed that a greater number of respondents reported “never” using the city’s online library compared to those who “never” used the main library or a local library branch.

As libraries continue to adjust and shift to meet the changing demands of their communities, Inouye believes libraries might play an important role in navigating the next big shift in technology: artificial intelligence.

“They could be a good place in the community to have a little laboratory about this and have people come in who can explain it, demonstrate it and provide lectures to the public,” he said. “It’s a place to help people become more aware and educated.”

This article was originally published by Government Technology, a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic LLC.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.
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