THE BLOG

Still Relevant? A Talk With a Librarian

02/25/2014 12:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014

Cynde Bloom Lahey began working in a library during high school. She received a Master's Degree in Library Science from Southern Connecticut University in 1989 and has been a librarian throughout her professional life. She is now Programming Specialist at the Norwalk Public Library.

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What changes have you seen in libraries over the last few years?
When I first became a librarian, we had a manual circulation system. Technology has changed everything and made things much easier in so many ways. There are myths about libraries no longer being warehouses of books, and librarians will have to find different ways of staying relevant. Historically, libraries have always been a cultural community center for people. Now, because of technology, the roles of libraries have expanded exponentially.

Libraries have evolved from being places to check out books, to places where people spend a lot more time. Library programming involves arranging events and programs tailored for people in the community. These include educational events, forums, book discussions, author appearances, concerts, theatrical performances, and art exhibits. Children's services have always been a priority -- which include story hours and other activities. We want to help instill a love of reading early in life; and create a safe, friendly atmosphere.

Speaking of children, I've noticed the vast majority of library visitors are very young and older people. Are libraries doing more to appeal to those between the ages of 30 and 65?
Yes. With the busy lives people lead, it's difficult them to find time to go to the library. Parents come with children; but today, much of our planning is centered on teens. For a while, teens were a lost population to us. Young children would come, we would lose them during their teens, and they would return eventually when they had small children -- to the children's section.

We've begun changing that situation by having computer classes and job search seminars. We even have health-related programs. A big area of expansion involves book groups. They've become one of the most central services a library performs. We offer options for book groups meeting at home, but we've created and now coordinate book groups meeting at the library.

What does your library do for book groups that meet at people's homes?
We have our book group collection. If a group will be discussing a book and calls the library in advance to tell us they need multiple copies in paperback, our library will buy them. We will also make sure we have an e-book copy, and if available, an audio book of the title so people can choose whichever format they prefer. I know of one library that provides librarians to go to the home and lead book discussions. It's a "librarians on loan" program. I've led several home book groups in my career.

Some studies indicate that in lower-income communities, libraries are rated as being vitally important, more so than in upper-middle class communities.
Urban libraries definitely have higher usage than suburban ones. The most important part of a library's mission is to provide free and equal access to information. Our philosophy at the Norwalk Public Library is to embrace that sentiment and to instill the joy of reading for our diverse community, in a clean and welcoming environment. A very poor person and a multi-millionaire visit our library, and receive the same services. They have access to the same information, can use the computers, and read or check out books. It's a community place where people feel equal. In lower-income neighborhoods, the library has become fundamental for gaining knowledge and for expanding horizons through reading and attending cultural events.

Do you feel the future of libraries will be much more about services provided than the physical books they contain?
Absolutely. The most important part of a public library is embodied in the services it provides. Our function is to be responsive to our patrons' interests. Content can be delivered in many different formats. We must make certain services are provided and patrons' needs are met. Above all, a library serves a community of people, and its staff's mission is to be attuned to the town in which the library is situated.

As for services, our author events are very popular. Many people come every week to meet an author and hear about a new book or about writing. Some people live alone and find the library a safe, friendly and comforting place to spend time. We get all kinds of questions from patrons -- ranging from things like "What is the bus schedule?" to "Can you recommend a good book?" or "Can you give me one-on-one instruction on computer use?"

How about computer classes?
The Norwalk Library offers them in English and Spanish.

Do you foresee the day when the bulk of lending will be downloadable as opposed to the physical product, whether DVDs, CDs, or books?
No. The downloadable content is simply another format similar to books, CDs and DVDs. Recently, we've seen downloaded content level off in popularity. Every year, right after Christmas, when people get new devices as gifts, we see an upsurge in downloads. That lasts for a while, but it appears to have flattened out. Only between 2 to 5 percent of library usage is downloadable. Physical books, CDs and DVDs are still being checked out. I'm trying to determine if, as time passes, young people accustomed to doing nearly everything digitally, will bring downloaded content more to the fore. But when I've talked with teenagers and college students, I learned they love to hold a real book in their hands. Physical books and e-books aren't mutually exclusive. They're simply different formats for obtaining content and experiencing reading pleasure.

So you see the prognosis for libraries as an excellent one, and feel they will thrive?
Yes, I think so. We're really evolving into centers of instruction to help people navigate through a maze of electronic information and resources. But people still want to find a good book to read, a movie to watch, and they use our resources. Librarians' roles have always been to disseminate information. We must make sure to maintain a friendly, reachable presence. A library staff must be visible, approachable, and available. You know, some libraries have passport offices. Some have cafes. Others, including Norwalk Public Library, have tax forms available as well as volunteer income tax assistants from AARP. Believe it or not, for some people, the first time they ever came to the library was to have their income taxes done. We also have Affordable Care Act workshops to help with enrollments.

Norwalk has a substantial Hispanic community. We have staff members who speak Spanish and they've forged relationships with these patrons. We had a Colombian poet give a reading in Spanish, and had a huge audience. We're expanding to include programs in Italian and other languages.

All these activities give people a central location for a multitude of services, and provide a sense of belonging to our community. That's what really counts.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad