A patron using a computer at the downtown library Wednesday.

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.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Join the Conversation


  1. “What is the relevance of libraries in the age of Google?”

    An incredibly expensive daytime homeless shelter, it seems. Then back to the Margarita Inn for the night shift.

    1. I get frustrated when ANYONE disturbs the peace at the library. I sometimes try the second floor study stations. I’ve found specifically that adult men, homeless or not, do not know how to behave there. Last time I was there, I sat next to a old guy making calls in another language. It went on for at least an hour. Thank goodness for my noise cancelling headphones. Anyone who has gone to elementary school knows there’s NO TALKING in a library, but too often adult men think they’re special.

      As for Margarita residents, I’ve heard they have no common areas in that building. I thought they did, like the YMCA. But apparently there are nothing but cells in there, so it’s either stay ‘in jail’ or find somewhere else to go that doesn’t cost money.

      1. I work out of an office on the third floor (our org rents the space). Some days are not too bad, but at other times, a madhouse. We have public hours, when our office door is open, so we are always “on the alert” for disruptive people coming in and have had several “incidents”. I grew up using libraries, and I think of them as “temples”, civilized spaces for learning and knowledge. Now, unfortunately, many have devolved into refuges for disruptive vagrants. Last Friday I had a kerfuffle with one who entered the elevator with me. I was going up to the fourth floor, a restricted area, only for staff (accessed via a keypad code in the elevator); when I said that I was going up, and that I’d send the elevator back down for her, she got in a big huff, swearing at me… “all in a day’s work”…

        Katherine, on the third floor there are private spaces you can book for use. Several are the “Zoom rooms” mentioned, others are glassed – in private rooms, these are in the southeast area of the third floor. Ask at the third floor desk, they are nice and quiet to use. There is also a locked single – use rest room one can use, ask for the key at that desk…

        Yes, no common spaces for guests at the Margarita! The rooms *are* dank cells, so people have no alternative but to go outside…

        I saw elsewhere that EPL has used Connections for a training program on de-escalation techniques for their staff. If it’s the same lame training I was required to take when I worked for Connections, then “heaven help us”, as the old saying goes…

        Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

  2. The Evanston Public Library has been rendered useless and is no longer safe nor enjoyable due to the large number of vagrants monopolizing most of the third floor, public bathrooms, and quiet rooms (where they blast their music). Like many other former Evanston library patrons I now go to either Skokie’s or Wilmette’s wonderful libraries.

  3. Unfortunately ( or not ) talking is no longer prohibited. One library where I worked attempted to make cell phone zones but that rarely worked. If really loud though a librarian should be willing to remind them to keep volume down.

Leave a comment
The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *