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Public libraries remake themselves in digital era

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — At the bustling public library here, requests by three patrons to place any title on hold prompt a savvy computer system to order an additional copy of the coveted item. That policy was intended to eliminate the frustration of long waits to check out bestsellers and other popular books. But it has had some unintended consequences, too: The library’s shelves are now stocked with 36 copies of ‘‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’’

Of course, librarians acknowledge that when patrons’ passion for the sexy series lacking in literary merit cools in a year or two, the majority of volumes in the ‘‘Fifty Shades’’ trilogy will probably be plucked from the shelves and sold at the Friends of the Library’s used-book sales, alongside other poorly circulated, donated, and out-of-date materials.


“A library has limited shelf space, so you almost have to think of it as a store, and stock it with the things that people want,’’ said Jason Kuhl, executive director of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. Renovations will turn a swath of the library’s first floor into an area resembling a bookshop, where patrons will be pampered with cozy seating, a vending cafe, and, above all, an abundance of bestsellers.

As librarians across the nation struggle to redefine their roles and responsibilities in a digital age, many public libraries are seeing an opportunity to fill the void created by the loss of traditional bookstores.

Libraries are increasingly adapting their collections and services based on the demands of patrons, whom they now call customers. They are reinventing themselves as vibrant town squares, showcasing the latest bestsellers, lending Kindles loaded with e-books, and offering grassroots technology training centers.

Faced with the need to compete for shrinking municipal finances, libraries are determined to prove they can respond as quickly to the needs of the taxpayers as the police and fire departments can.


‘‘I think public libraries used to seem intimidating to many people, but today, they are becoming much more user-friendly and are no longer these big, impersonal mausoleums,’’ said Jeannette Woodward, a former librarian and author of ‘‘Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model.’’

‘‘Public libraries tread a fine line,’’ Woodward said. ‘‘They want to make people happy, and get them in the habit of coming into the library for popular bestsellers, even if some of it might be considered junk. But libraries also understand the need for providing good information, which often can only be found at the library.’’

Cheryl Hurley, president of Library of America, a nonprofit publisher in New York ‘‘dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing,’’ said the trend of libraries catering to the public’s demand for bestsellers is not surprising, especially given the ravages of the recession on public budgets.

Still, Hurley remains confident libraries will never relinquish their responsibility to provide patrons with opportunities to discover literary works of merit, be it the classics or more recent fiction from novelists like Philip Roth, whose work is critically acclaimed and immensely popular.

While print books, both fiction and nonfiction, still make up the bulk of most library collections — e-books remain limited to less than 2 percent of many collections in part because some publishers limit their availability at libraries — building renovation plans these days rarely include expanding shelf space for print products. Instead, many libraries are culling their collections and adapting floor plans to accommodate technology training programs, as well as mini-conference rooms that offer private, quiet spaces frequently requested by self-employed consultants meeting with clients, as well as teenagers needing space to huddle over group projects.


Though an increase in book weeding these days — a practice long known in library parlance as deselection — might be troubling to some bibliophiles, library officials say, many books removed from libraries enjoy a happy life after being sold.

A recent visit to the Friends of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Warehouse Sale proved to be not unlike wandering into a reader’s nirvana for Jeff Borden, 61. A writer and adjunct professor from Chicago, Borden said he and his wife, Johanna Brandon, left the November sale with shopping bags brimming with an eclectic and bargain-priced assortment of fiction and nonfiction, including the noir novel ‘‘The Leopard,’’ by Jo Nesbo.

Borden estimated the couple spent $50 — money that will be given to the library system to finance programs.

‘‘Great fiction is still being written, as well as rotten fiction,’’ Borden added. ‘‘To my way of thinking, you need to get them in the door of the library first, and if someone’s search for ‘Shades of Grey’ leads them to read D.H. Lawrence, well, that’s not a bad deal.’’