Event Review: The Evolving Landscape of Our Libraries

by Nancy Tinari; review of presentation by Christine Middlemass, Manager of Collections & Technical Services at Vancouver Public Library (VPL) on the evolving landscape of our libraries, held at the March 19, 2014 EAC-BC branch meeting

Christine Middlemass, a librarian since 1978, provided a lively, fast-paced and thorough overview of how libraries have changed over the past two decades. Accelerating times have caused many challenges for libraries. Yet if librarians have half the competence and humour of Middlemass, book lovers can be confident that these establishments will remain the cornerstone of communities. As Vancouverites, we can feel smug: the Vancouver Public Library is the third largest in Canada and recently was rated number one in the world, tied with Montréal’s library network.

Middlemass began by summarizing the ways libraries were previously operated, when print was “king” and the reference librarian was the “search engine.” In the past, libraries focused on providing products, such as books. Today, they favour services over physical collections.

Yet, how have technology and changes in Vancouver communities affected the ways in which libraries have been forced to evolve? What challenges does VPL face today? And what new and upcoming services will it offer? Middlemass tackled these questions.

What changed?

  • The Internet arrived.
  • Communities diversified; in addition to English and French, libraries now provide materials in fourteen languages with demand to carry more on the rise.
  • Content is duplicated in many formats and all their varieties: print (hardcover and paperback), zines, eBooks, DVDs, Blu-ray, audio, eAudio, MP3, streaming (soon) and more.
  • Ownership is complicated, especially with eBooks.
  • Online catalogue; imagine the library system as 22 branches.

eBooks: Statistics and challenges

The percentage of books read as eBooks is on the rise. In 2013, 28% of adults read an eBook. In the same year, 47% of under-30s read one, with 17% of the 65+ set also taking part. The ability to choose a large font size is a bonus for older readers. VPL has seven to eight thousand eBooks, which make up 2–4% of the materials circulated.

eBooks challenges are ongoing. Publishers have different ways of charging libraries for e-versions. They are expensive to buy and borrowing procedures are not always user-friendly. Only one reader can access an eBook at a time, and once an eBook is due, it “evaporates” and the reader might have to wait months for renewal.

What else is new?

In addition to eBooks, libraries now provide new products and services:

  • Audio books. High demand with few choices.
  • Interactivity. “Discovery layers” are important. BiblioCommons and other social media sites allow reader contribution. Creating collaborative digital interactive spaces or maker spaces for all users (coming soon).
  • Virtual library services. 24/7 availability.
  • VPL will allow patrons to request help from their physical location while in the library. Meaning, librarians will come to you; patrons won’t have to move or risk losing their carrel. Librarians are stepping away from the fixed reference desk and moving towards a more efficient and adaptive model.
  • Self-published authors. Librarians decide what books to carry based on several factors: traditional reviewing services, popular picks or patron deman, social media recommendations and their professional judgment. They are more likely to promote local self-published authors.
  • VPL uses a centralized collection rather than the old model where each branch was in charge of its own collections. Seven librarians work in collaboration with all the Greater Vancouver branches to be aware of branch needs. Inter-library loans are a critical feature. “Floating collections” have no permanent home: items remain at the library where they are returned until another branch receives a hold or request. This reduces issues to do with storage and transportation costs, and the number of copies of a book the library buys.
  • Libraries advocate for readers by hosting book clubs and providing resources and support for writers, including event programming. Middlemass mentioned, an organization with library partners that is trying to improve eBook access.

How will VPL continue to evolve? What are the goals and challenges?

Libraries are challenged not only by changes in technology, but by the cost to duplicate content across formats. Middlemass feels that people should be able to continue interacting with physical books, but noted younger generations are format agnostic and may not care as much about print books as older patrons.

The inconsistent and expensive pricing of eBooks has been mentioned. Another large cost will be streamed content, which uses huge amounts of data.

Librarians must constantly monitor markets and what patrons want. There is a need for collaboration with other library types, such as academic libraries. One goal of inter-library collaboration is to ensure that out-of-print “last copy” books are preserved. Also, a single library can’t specialize in all areas. Still, VPL focuses somewhat in local history, archived Vancouver photos and Aboriginal content.

As an avid library patron, I am grateful to Christine Middlemass for her presentation and the work she and other librarians do. The landscape is certainly evolving.

Nancy Tinari is a former Olympic runner who enjoys reading, editing and reviewing books as well as writing about fitness and psychology.

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