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In our pages: Libraries look ahead

November 12, 2010 | 12:51 pm

Cololibrary_sarno

What purposes can a library serve in an era when research can be done at home computers, thousands of public domain books can be downloaded for free, and people are starting to carry around e-book readers? That's the question that David Sarno seeks to answer in Friday's Times.

"It's very common for people to say, 'Why do I need a library when I've got a computer?' " said Pam Sandlian-Smith, director of the seven-branch Rangeview, Colo., Library District. "We have to reframe what the library means to the community."

In the struggle to stay relevant — and ultimately to stay open — libraries are reinventing themselves in ways unimaginable even a few years ago, preparing for a future in which most materials can be checked and read from a home computer, smartphone or electronic reading device.

But not all library professionals are enthusiastic about the community-building efforts Sandlian-Smith and others like her have taken:

"If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don't pretend it has anything to do with libraries," said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. "The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, 'Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky' — it seems ludicrous to me."

Sarno reports that lending books is taking a back seat as libraries diversify their holdings -- DVDs! e-books! -- and struggle to define how they can serve their local communities. And yet libraries can also serve a wider audience; some are bringing rare archival materials online.

That doesn't mean that there are e-books available yet for everything in their collections. Publishers hold back e-book versions of some big sellers from libraries -- Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," the Harry Potter series.

One library advocate tells Sarno that the places where people once gathered to read may be retooled as a place where they also create. They're not the only ones thinking that: earlier this year, NaNoWriMo signed up libraries as writing locations for its project to write a novel in a month.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Pam Sandlian-Smith, director of the Rangeview, Colo., Library District. Credit: David Sarno / Los Angeles Times

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