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At local libraries, books line shelves but digital drives future

Josie Nielsen, 6, explores using a Playaway Launchpad at the Fargo Library. The device is loaded with games and learning tools. The device can be checked out to patrons and does not need an internet connection. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 4
Sebastian Buisan, 4, uses an Apple iPad to play games on while visiting the Moorhead Public Library. In the background is a mobile device charging station for patrons to use.Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 4
The West Fargo Public Library includes many media besides books, such as this audiobook collection. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 4
Maryam Sulaiman, a college freshman, studies Wednesday, April 19, 2017, in the West Fargo Public Library. She used to study there in high school and still returns there. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor4 / 4

MOORHEAD — Smartphone apps now let library cardholders check out popular movies and e-books without even walking through the door, and public computers and classes like Intro to Twitter are as crucial to libraries today as circulation.

But that doesn't mean books are collecting dust or the internet is making libraries obsolete.

"People like to say our mission has changed, but it's always been about access," said Megan Krueger, Moorhead Public Library Director, who was quick to quote English author Neil Gaiman: "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one."

Though libraries are devoting an increasing share of their resources to digital collections, many people do still come through the doors as libraries try to accommodate evolving needs and inquiries, typically about technology.

"We get patrons who come in with their iPad and need help downloading an e-book. The kinds of questions are different just based on the technology and the more technology expands and the more kinds of devices there are, the more we have to broaden our knowledge, too," said April Ide, the West Fargo Public Library assistant director.

Ide teaches tech classes a couple times a month and said retirees frequent her classes.

"I'm surprised how much they want to use Pinterest and Instagram," she said.

Just this month during National Library Week, Fargo rolled out a new app to boost access to streaming videos and e-books and Moorhead released an app to help mobile users navigate its offerings. West Fargo's library, meanwhile, had already taken both those steps.

But at the same time as they become digital hubs, libraries still offer the basics: research, reference and free Wi-Fi.

"One day my internet was out, the first place I came was the library for that service," said state Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, at a recent legislative forum earlier this month at the Moorhead library, adding that libraries are "gems in our community" accessible to everyone.

"They are very important," Lien said. "It's more than coming here to check out a book."

A tech transformation

Libraries have been transformed by technology. Books on tape? A relic. DVDs are now the highest circulating item. Audiobook and e-book circulation exceeded circulation of physical books in Fargo for the first time in 2016, Library Director Tim Dirks said.

Patrons today can check out powershot cameras and flip camcorders, electronic magnifying glass and laptops just as easily as they can check out a cookbook or print off a resume.

The children's section of the library has tablets and computers — without access to the internet, only educational games — and in Moorhead there are even three mobile device charging stations throughout the library.

The library has become "more of an all-around community gathering space," Krueger said. It's used for chess club, breast cancer support groups, job hunts and interviews, research, respite and connecting with other resources.

A self-described "indiscriminate reader," 48-year-old Shelly Hoeft has been a devoted patron of the Moorhead library since she moved here in sixth grade. She visits at least once a week to journal or read because at home she's too easily distracted.

"It's a good place to come and have private time and check out for a bit," she said.

Hoeft has a Nook, a device for reading e-books, but "if you're a true reader, there's nothing like having that feeling of a book in your hands." A book with coffee stains or forgotten little treasures left behind from the other readers before, she said.

Some dedicated patrons still come in every morning to read the newspapers. Others visit frequently to email family and use the free Wi-Fi. Then there are the patrons that only come in when they find themselves in situations like Rep. Lien.

"Everybody comes in through those doors," Krueger said, no matter their socioeconomic status, sex, age or race.

Libraries at your fingertips

While libraries have been adapting to technology for years, two of them locally are expanding into a growing area of content delivery: streaming audio and video.

Fargo recently introduced Hoopla, an app allowing cardholders the ability to stream thousands of music albums, movies, TV shows, audiobooks and e-books from their smartphone, tablet or computer. No wait and totally free.

West Fargo has been on the cutting edge of new library services. Its book vending machine installed outside of Cash Wise Foods in 2015 was the first of its kind in the state.

But it was also the first library in the state to implement Hoopla last year, and the first in 2010 — followed by Fargo a few months later — to offer OverDrive, a digital library accessible through an app or website that gives patrons access to more audiobooks and e-books.

"We keep looking at other things, too," said Sandra Hannahs, West Fargo's library director.

In Moorhead, the Lake Agassiz Regional Library launched a mobile app this month, which is a mobile-friendly version of its website. The regional library system includes 22 branches throughout west central Minnesota and Krueger said more than 1,500 people have already downloaded the app. She said she anticipates it will "make it easier and more convenient for customers to access library services."

Moorhead doesn't offer streaming services, but Krueger said it's on the horizon.

"Whatever comes up, we try to meet that demand," she said. "(We) change with society. It's hard to say what's coming."

Budget shifts to digital

The changes at local libraries are also evident in their budgets and their circulation numbers.

Ten years ago, West Fargo's library didn't allocate any money to its digital collection. Now, it spends about $30,000 on digital compared to roughly $121,500 on its physical collection.

Physical includes items like books and magazines, but also computers, tablets and audiobooks that are actually on the shelves to check out instead of through an app.

In Fargo, electronic material circulation has skyrocketed since 2010, when just 776 digital items were checked out. In 2016, digital circulation jumped to nearly 86,000 items.

Circulation of physical materials in the Lake Agassiz system is dropping while demand for digital materials goes up, Krueger said. In 2012, circulation of physical materials was 933,350 while digital exceeded 40,000. Last year, digital doubled to nearly 85,000 while circulation of physical materials was down to about 834,000.

That's why Fargo allocated $40,000 more in 2016 to digital than it did in 2012. Last year, the library spent $126,600 on digital and close to $483,000 on physical material.

LARL has more than doubled its digital budget in the last five years, spending a little more than $77,000 on digital last year compared to about $32,000 in 2012. Meanwhile the budget for physical materials has waned.

"The circulation of print material is shrinking," Krueger said, adding that this is a nationwide trend libraries started seeing around 2008.

Still, the Moorhead library checks out more print material than e-books, Krueger said. "Print is not going away [it's] still a large demand," she said.

That's why Krueger doesn't buy the notion that libraries are dying.

"I just don't see it. We're constantly busy here," she said.

Of course, it depends on the time and the day. Sometimes the West Fargo library is like Grand Central Station, Hannahs said.

Other days, she said it can be an "ivory tower of tranquility."

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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