You could say it was an existential question for libraries, posed by a magazine called Government Technology.
“Public Libraries Ditched Card Catalogs,” the headline proclaimed, and then asked “Are Computers Next?”
Starr Rodgers certainly hopes not.
Rodgers is a computer regular at the Evanston Public Library downtown.
Rodgers, who sat at a screen Wednesday afternoon, said she prefers “taking care of important business” with a library computer, and “not having to use my phone.”
“It’s a very helpful resource,” Rodgers said.
“It’s very important.”
The government IT magazine noted that in-person use of library computers has been declining for a decade nationwide, a decrease fueled by COVID-19.
Even after library buildings reopened post-pandemic, some computers were put in storage to keep patrons separated, plus, attendance dropped anyway as many people avoided public places.
It has not come all the way back, at least not yet.
About half of the the computers at Evanston’s downtown library were taken off the study carrel tables during COVID.
But now, they’ve all been put back, giving the facility 22 general access computers, and 11 more in the teen and youth sections combined.
Tyler Works, EPL’s data and technology librarian, told Evanston Now that “our in-person computer sessions are not as numerous as they were pre-pandemic, but they continue to rise compared to last year.”
EPL had about 60,000 in-person computer use sessions in 2019 (combining both the downtown and Robert Crown library numbers).
From June 2022 through May 2023, there were about 35,000 in-person uses. While that’s less than before COVID, it’s also a 54% jump over the same period the year before.
Works said it’s too soon to predict if the upward trend will continue, but one good sign is an 82% increase in computer use in the teen section from a year ago.
However in-person computer usage does shake out, there’s still no question that libraries are changing their offerings.
And with the library observing its 150th anniversary this year, looking to the past means looking to the future as well.
“150 years ago,” said Jenette Sturges, the library’s communications and marketing manager, “libraries meant making books widely available for free.”
Books are still a big part of library’s business, but many are now e-books.
Physical book checkout numbers are flat, but digital checkouts are up 10% so far this year.
And there are more reflections of technology.
Take hot spots.
Yes, you can take wireless network hot spots from the library.
One reason in-person computer use may be down at the library is that patrons can check out mobile hot spots, to improve computer access at home.
EPL has about 200 lendable hot spots, and there’s a waiting list to borrow them.
Sturges said hot spot lending began pre-pandemic, but the demand skyrocketed during COVID, and has not let up, to the point that the library had to “significantly increase” the number it had.
And you can take a computer home with you instead of sitting in the library. Chromebooks are on the lending list.
Also “wildly popular,” Sturges added, are 50 job search kits, combining technology and documents.
Part of adapting means becoming a “library of things,” signing out tool kits and cooking equipment.
Ironically, even though the number of in-person computer uses is down compared to pre-pandemic days, there are still a lot of people who want to use the library for other things.
There’s big demand for the downtown library’s nine meeting rooms, as well as for the two “Zoom Rooms,” a outgrowth of the pandemic if there ever was one.
“Everything is set up for you,” Sturges explained.
Zoom rooms are “professional looking locations” for someone who doesn’t want, say, their little kids running around during a remote job interview.
Of course libraries will still have books full of shelves, but Works said “how spaces are being used” will change in the future.
For example, the downtown library was built in the 1990s, and so there are not enough conveniently located USB ports and power outlets for personal laptops and chargers.
And rather than asking will computers be removed (which is “no,” at least for the forseeable future), a more appropriate question, said Works, is “what is the relevance of libraries in the age of Google?”
EPL is taking multiple steps to stay relevant, Works noted, in “whatever form it takes to meet the needs of the community.”
Soon, Sturges said, that should include classes how to understand and work with AI, artificial intelligence.