PRINCETON: Keeping library relevant in digital age

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
   Philip Sean CurranStaff Writer
   At the Princeton Public Library, executive director Leslie Burger can sound like a bottom-line driven corporate CEO.
   She uses terms like business model, she talks about watching user trends, she speaks of monitoring industry studies — all to inform how she runs a library that bills itself as the “community’s living room.””Public libraries in general are in the midst of probably the largest single transformation in their history in the sense that the world in which we’re operating in is very different than the world we operated in even five to seven years ago,” said Ms. Burger in an interview. “Our challenge, all of us who work here, is to make sure that we are responding and a little bit in of advance of what people are looking for.”
   From decisions on how best to use floor space to how to deliver content, she and her staff are navigating that transformation to keep the library relevant to its patrons. It comes at a time when people can use their smart phones or tablet computers to get the information that they once went to the library for, something library officials touched on when creating their strategic plan.
   ”With more and more content easily accessible on the Internet, the role of libraries as primary information authorities is decreasing and the fundamental role is shifting from the provision of physical objects to content distribution,” the document read in part. “There is no doubt that public libraries will be much different in the coming decade.”
   Each day, anywhere from 2,220 to 2,500 people pass through the doors of the eight-year-old library building — whether to read, borrow items, attend a program or find a public space to do their work. Ms. Burger said that aside from the impact that the digital revolution is having, the way people “ perceive and use” libraries is changing.
   ”We’re very committed to staying on top of current library trends and staying relevant and useful to the community,” said Katherine McGavern, president of the library board of trustees.
   In many ways, the library borrowed from the business model of national book sellers Barnes and Noble and the now-defunct Borders, who created relaxed, comfortable places to sit, eat and talk around books. Aside from floors of books, the Princeton Library has a café — all part of an effort to attract the same kind of customer who would go to the bookstores.
   ”What we’re seeing is,” Ms. Burger said, “libraries are transforming their space, they’re transforming the way in which they provide information, they’re transforming the way in which they help people learn and understand the world around them. And the digital media is just part of that.”
   With that in mind, the library this summer has pulled apart its teen center to create more “mobile work” spaces. As a part of the project, the decided to replace the desktop computers with 10 MacBook Pros laptops that students can use instead.
   ”That’s a big change, and I think it reflects that’s how kids are working right now,” Ms. Burger said. “So we’re not going to tie them to a desk anymore. We’re going to let them work collaboratively. And we’re going to provide them with the tools that complement what they’re getting in the school during the day.”
   The digital revolution is having another impact. In the past, the library would set aside a fair amount of space for reference books. That’s no longer the case, as resources became available electronically.
   ”We’re holding onto the essentials that we don’t have any online alternatives for, but to the extent that we can offer an online alternative, we’re going there,” she said.The library also provides content not solely through physical objects like books or DVDs. By using the library website, patrons can get music, movies, ebooks, old copies of magazines and other resources. A challenge, Ms. Burger said, is to get people to understand the website is an extension of the library.
   Yet for all the digital advances, Ms. Berger said she couldn’t imagine a day without physical books in the library.
   ”I think as long as people are reading, they’re going to read in a variety of ways,” said Ms. Berger, who admits she does not like reading ebooks but uses them when she travels.