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Amid digital revolution, libraries retain their human touch

Jim Parks with a barred owl at the Ventress Memorial Library in Marshfield.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

It was a simple request during the holiday season a few years ago: A library patron asked for a favorite Christmas movie.

Cyndee Marcoux, the director of Marshfield’s Ventress Memorial Library, didn’t think much of the encounter until about a month later, when the woman returned to thank her. The patron said she’d just landed a good job thanks to the help she received from librarians to draft her resume and cover letter.

“She told me she had been in a bad place, and just by recognizing her and doing something nice for her, it just changed her life,” Marcoux recalled. “It touched my heart so much.”


Libraries find themselves at a crossroads in an era when technology makes finding information as easy as swiping on a smartphone. But even as overall circulation numbers fall, libraries are adding more programs to serve the public. Those efforts emphasize a notion that can’t be matched with an app: Libraries serve as a gateway to a wider community.

“I think libraries will always be a touchstone for our society,” said patron Joshua Libby, 34, of Medford. “Their services will never go away.”

To be sure, it’s not as if our love of libraries is fading. But like any relationship, things change.

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, which tallies data on about 370 local libraries, reports that total circulation dropped about 8 percent between fiscal year 2010 and 2018, from about 64.7 million to 59.4 million.

At the same time, however, libraries expanded their outreach. There were about 81,000 programs for adults and young adults last year, more than double the number at the start of the decade. During the same period, the number of children’s programs grew by a third, to nearly 89,000.

At the Somerville Public Library, programs run the gamut from pop-up libraries in Assembly Row to knitting and “books and brews” sessions for adults, said Cathy Piantigini, the library director. There’s even a supper club that features dishes prepared by members, she said. In Somerville, the library links patrons with the community.


The total number of Somerville’s adult and young adult programs has grown from 308 in 2010 to 521 in 2018, according to data collected by the state library commissioners. Children’s programs also increased as well, from 305 in 2010 to 521 in 2018.

“People view the library as bit of a hub in a way,” Piantigini said. “Some people view it as a way they connect with the rest of the city.”

Libraries also can find themselves on the front lines of societal issues like substance abuse and homelessness. Boston’s public library, for example, added a full-time outreach manager in 2017 to assist people who are experiencing homelessness.

Waltham Public Library, whose motto on its website is “Window to the World,” is a sanctuary for many people, according to library director Kelly Linehan.

The library “wants to come to the table” to work on solutions, but it can’t implement permanent fixes alone, she said.

“If your local library has a population of homeless or substance abusers, that means these two issues are prevalent in your backyard. These are your neighbors,” Linehan said. “And I hope that triggers a moment of true compassion and concern, and not a critique of a public library or librarians doing their job.”


Bob Lisaius entertains children as “Space Dino Man” at the Waltham Public Library. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In Waltham, there were 96 adult and young adult programs at the public library in 2010. That number had more than doubled by 2018, when the Waltham Public Library had 252 programs for adults and young adults, according to the state library commissioners. The number of children’s programs also increased, from 233 in 2010 to 482 in 2018.

Director Tara Mansfield said the Salem Public Library has outreach programs that serve older residents, as well as Spanish-speaking members of the community. Salem’s library also offers a free lunch program throughout the summer for children.

“Part of the value is the stability,” Mansfield said of a library. “It’s a place that welcomes people.”

Salem’s adult and young adult programs have increased from 12 in 2010 to 62 in 2018. Its count of children’s programs dropped from 311 in 2010 to 282 in 2018.

Shifts in technology have occasionally spurred calls for private industry to take over the role of public libraries. Ann MacFate, the director of Needham’s public library, has heard that argument before.

“I’ve had friends say, ‘Why do we have libraries, when we have Google?’” MacFate said. “And I light into them.”

She called librarians the “ultimate search engine.”

“You can Google anything you want, but if you want it done right, ask a librarian,” MacFate said.

In an age of fake news, mistrust of mainstream media, and the easy spread of disinformation over social media, libraries still have the public’s trust. Most Americans said libraries help them find information that is “trustworthy and reliable,” according to a 2016 Pew survey.


“Libraries are needed more than ever . . . people need a safe place to come, to get information,” said Marcoux of Marshfield’s Ventress library. “I can’t imagine a world without them.”

In Marshfield, the total number of adult and young adult programs soared from 26 in 2010 to 670 by 2018.Children’s programs also increased during the same period, from 161 to 248.

Marcoux is the product of what a library can provide: In 1999, she was a single mother with a high school diploma who worked at her local library.

But being in that world inspired her: With the support of her co-workers, Marcoux returned to school in 2000 and over the following years, earned her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, then her master’s in library and information science from what is now Simmons University in 2008.

“I was very fortunate that I ran into people who really cared,” Marcoux said, “and I try to pay that back.”

With all the changes in libraries, there are patrons who still love perusing book stacks.

Arlinda Shtuni, 44, of Somerville, grew up in communist Albania before coming to the United States by way of Canada at age 18. She still remembers books that were heavily censored, leaving her to wonder what was cut out.

The libraries in America, she said, give patrons the chance to access and share information freely.

“To me, libraries are the finest example of pure, free cultural space,” she said. “They are essential to our democracy.”


Lynne Barrett and Karen L’Italien browse the pop-up library at the Community Life Center in Salem. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.