As a library professional for four decades and director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners since 2002, Robert Maier has seen dramatic changes in how people get and use information for education, enjoyment, and entertainment.
Hardcovers and paperbacks have given way to electronic books. Vinyl records ceded to cassette tapes, then compact discs, and then downloadable and streamed music. Basic Internet access was once a must-have, but now it’s all about WiFi and mobile.
Public libraries have tackled it all. And, in a tough economy, Maier helped build a strong statewide system of shared library services and increased library use.
Maier, 64, of Salem, retired as director of the board on March 15.
Before leaving, he discussed how public libraries have changed over the years, how they remain relevant today, and how they are continuing to evolve in a digital age. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Globe North: Why did you decide to leave the board now?
Maier: When I started in the library profession 40 years ago, it was a far-out, dream-like goal that people would have access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We are moving toward that, and part of the reason I feel good leaving the job — not leaving the profession, one never leaves a profession — is that a lot of what I set out to accomplish we have achieved.
It’s a really good time for someone fresh to come in to this position and to take our library system, which is truly a statewide library system, to a new level, and I am hopeful with the economy starting to go in the right direction it will be an opportunity to capture new state funding to do the things we need to do.
Globe North: What’s on the to-do list?
Maier: We provide state aid to public libraries to ensure a minimal level of library service in every city and town. That program assures residents of the Commonwealth that they can use any other library in the state. It’s a hallmark program for Massachusetts.
Individual libraries can’t meet all the needs of their residents; they have to work with other libraries. The work we do is to make that kind of collaboration and pooling of resources available to residents.
That program lost one-third of its funding four years ago. It is always a concern that when state support falters, local support may follow suit.
There are a few communities where that has occurred, and we don’t want to see it happen in more communities.
As a general rule most municipalities have worked hard to support their libraries, even in the recession, and they have done that because library use is up more than ever.
Globe North: What is the increase in use of public libraries?
Maier: In the last 10 years, attendance at public libraries has gone up 50 percent and circulation is up 25 percent.
Globe North: What’s the reason for the increase?
Maier: There are many answers. Our public libraries are the only place in any community where you can be assured you can go and have free access to a computer hooked up to the Internet. They are used nonstop, and that has been the case for the last 10 years.
In the recession and today as we slowly come out of it, most libraries provide access to programs that help people find jobs.
Libraries are welcome centers for immigrants. If your literacy skills aren’t what they need to be, you can go to your library and they may have a program there to help, or can tell you where there is a program.
Libraries are in touch with the needs of their communities and provide those services that are needed.
Globe North: How has the digital revolution changed things?
Maier: How many hours do you have? Baseline, the digital revolution has been a boon to libraries in that through the Internet we can provide people access to an amazing array and quality of information that previously only would have been available by not only visiting a local public library, but by going to many libraries.
That’s the bright side.
Globe North: What’s the not-so-bright side?
Maier: The situation with e-books is very challenging for libraries, primarily because several of the major publishers will not allow libraries to purchase and license and lend their e-books. Those that do have some onerous roadblocks.
At [one publisher] if you license an e-book, you can only lend it 26 times and then it disappears and you have to re-buy it — as opposed to a real book, which you can lend until it falls apart.
Other [publishers] are making books available, but at two or three times the cost of the hardcover equivalent. It’s a higher price than consumers would pay and higher than libraries are used to paying.
Right now our libraries do not have access to all the e-books that are public.
And some material is only available as e-books, which means that as a user of a library you cannot have access unless you are willing to pay for it
That’s entirely different than anything we’ve seen in 150 years of public libraries.
If we can’t get access to e-books, how can we provide access to existing knowledge of the world and contemporary thought ?
This is a whole new area. And it’s very concerning to us in libraries. We see our job as providing access to all the information and all published material.
We know how to do it in a physical world, but now are blocked in the electronic world. That is a problem.
Globe North: When will it get worked out?
Maier: We’ve been at this now with the e-book issue for about three years.
I’m guessing it is anywhere from two to five years before we reach some solid understanding of terms where libraries can get access to e-book resources. And there is always the potential we won’t reach that point.
From the publishers’ point of view, their whole industry is being turned on its head by this e-publishing phenomenon. They have their own challenges.
Our job is to point out what we have to deal with.
Globe North: Will that be successful?
Maier: I am an eternal optimist and I believe libraries and the publishing industry will find the right way to meet that challenge and, to be honest, we have to.
From a library point of view, we have no choice. We have to find middle ground so we can get e-books to users.
Globe North: Given the challenges, will libraries remain relevant?
Maier: There is no question libraries will continue to be relevant in people’s lives. If you look at the sweep of services public libraries provide, they are always there with materials, resources, and programs.
Many libraries in the 19th century had a big focus on community programming, active programs for adults as well as kids. We are seeing a rebirth of that.
Globe North: And what is in the future?
Maier: We are a long way from the day — if it ever comes — when your public library won’t have printed books. . . . But libraries will adapt, as they always have, to another format of material. . . . Libraries have always followed the consumer market.
Globe North: Sounds like an interesting time for libraries?
Maier: It’s a very exciting time. With anything that has challenges comes great opportunity.
Globe North: And what is the future for you, personally ?
Maier: I have a lot of work to do on my house in Salem. I have a research project looking at people who lived in the homes in a square block on Essex Street in Salem.
I started it 20 years ago, and put it aside, and am looking forward to have time to continue that. Fascinating people lived in that small area and I am determined to get to know them.
I’ll do some family research. And I love to travel.
Wendy Killeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.