By Scott Jacobs

librarycover I did not fully understand the renaissance of interest in public libraries until I was on vacation in the Wisconsin Northwoods and found myself without a telephone or computer connection. Steamin’ Joe’s, the Internet café in nearby Florence, was closed but the gas station attendant suggested I try the Florence Library.

Mary Seggelink, the librarian, was happy to accommodate me at any of her four computer workstations––as soon as one became free. Two were occupied by students checking their Facebook accounts, one by a local lumberjack looking for saw replacement parts, the last by an old woman playing solitaire. “We have a 30-minute limit but I make an exception in her case,” she said.

Seggelink, 63, has been the public librarian of Florence County since 1994. When she took the job, which pays all of $30,000 a year, the library was an adjunct to the Florence elementary school, more of a storybook reading room than a real library. Residents could come with their library cards and check out books, but few took the time.

In 2002, when Florence County was planning to build a community learning center next door, she convinced the county board to put bricks and mortar around the 200-feet in between and call it The Florence County Library. Seven years later, she has a 2,000 square-foot edifice with Public Library inscribed on its front door –– and 42,000 books, 700 audio CD’s and 2,500 video DVD’s.

As meager as that sounds, she’s trying to weed them out. “We don’t want anything that hasn’t been checked out in the last five years. We don’t want that many books at all. Nobody comes in to browse anymore. Everything is ordered online. What we need are more computers,” she said.

The Chicago Public Library

300px-Chicago_Library_DowntownThe Chicago Public Library has 5,295,965 books, 360,955 movies and music CD’s, and an incalculable archive of digital materials that includes e-books, podcasts, and digital versions of Chicago daily newspapers dating back to the first edition of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily Defender.

The heart of the operation is the 756,640 square-foot Harold Washington Library, a grand 10-story public building designed by Thomas H. Beeby and opened in 1991. It sits at the juncture of State Street and the Congress Expressway in the South Loop and has its own El stop on the Brown Line. No public library in America is more accessible to its constituents.

Within its walls are a television production studio, music rehearsal rooms, a newly-opened interactive study area for teens, exhibition areas and lecture halls. Every hour that it is open, 10,000 pieces of material circulate in and out of the building. In addition to the main library, the Chicago Public Library system also operates 78 branch locations, 53 of which have been built or renovated since 1989. Five more are now under construction, and there are 10 additional neighborhood libraries on the drawing boards.

No Card Catalog. It’s All Online

In all of the Chicago libraries, you will be hard-pressed to find a card catalog, that once ubiquitous box of 3 X 5 cards meticulously arranged in Dewey decimal system order. The card catalog has all but disappeared. Books are now checked in and out with barcode scanners. Even microfilm and microfiche are disappearing as librarians race to put their archives online.

1244559196_469f5a4d50The pride and joy of The Chicago Public Library is its new website (, which constitutes a rethinking not only of how people search for information, but how the library delivers its resources.  With a new online ordering system, catalog, circulation system and bibliographic database, the website is actually three-in-one: an adult version, a separate website for kids, and a third designed by teenagers and catering to their interests. Launched in March 2008, it now draws 1.1 million unique visitors a month who average 6.2 million page views and 6,363 downloads.

The best thing about the new website is that it allows library cardholders (Cards are free and there are 1,682,251 outstanding.) to order items online and have them delivered to the nearest branch location. In the past, books and movies could only be placed on hold in person at the library desk. Today, you can place holds day or night, after hours, in your pajamas, anywhere you have access to a computer.

When the item becomes available, you receive an automatic email notifying you it is in. If the hold cue for an item gets too long, a purchase order for more is automatically generated. (If you are a power user, you can also create a “My CPL” account to figure out which holds are in, which are overdue, and how to renew.)

Since the new website started, reservations for books on hold have increased 100 percent, contributing to an overall 30 percent increase in public library circulation, making this year the most productive year in the Chicago Public Library’s 136-year history.

The Head Librarian

Mary Dempsey, 54, has been head librarian of The Chicago Public Library since 1994. I went to see her in the top floor administrative offices at the Harold Washington library, a rabbit warren of cubicles large enough to hold ten Florence County libraries. She is hardly surprised by the rising circulation numbers.

2632823496_c327fe366a“People seem to assume that because the format in which information is being provided today has become an online or digital content that leaves us out of the loop,” she said, “but public libraries have always been kind of ahead of change. People come to public libraries today for the same reasons that they always have: because they want to have access to something they either cannot afford to own, cannot find to own, or do not want to own.”

The recessionary economy has spurred public library usage across the country –– “Why buy the latest James Patterson novel when you can get it free from your public library” –– but Dempsey believes Chicago’s success can be attributed to the fact it anticipated and planned for technological changes.

More Computers

The Chicago Public Library has 2,500 desktop computer stations in the system branches, all of which are linked in a high-speed digital network that includes a wi-fi node in each library for visitors who want to bring in their own laptop computers.

3475587764_8f201b2366In neighborhood libraries like Humboldt Park, Englewood and Little Village, where demand is high but space is limited, the library also has about 100 laptops that users can check out to use anywhere inside the library walls. Over the four years laptops have been offered, none have been damaged or mysteriously walked out the door.

“You and I live in a world where we think nothing of having a computer, but a lot of Chicagoans and people in rural areas cannot afford to own one or have access to the Internet. So they turn to the public libraries,” Dempsey said. “That’s part of our role: to give people access to the tools they need for life-long learning.” The benefit of this can be measured in a single statistic: last year, the Chicago Public Library provided 3.8 million hours of free Internet sessions to users, a figure it will handily surpass this year.

Meanwhile, Back in Florence

After she finishes weeding her collection, Mary Seggelink will carefully look over the catalogs to find the 2,500 new books, DVD’s and CD’s she is authorized to purchase this year. The Florence County library budget is meager. Besides Seggelink, there is only enough money for one part-time assistant, who works with the school next door, and never enough for Seggelink to attend the multitude of workshops on new technology critical to keeping her system up-to-date.

3446376788_e6a43488fdIn planning her acquisitions, Seggelink takes advantage of another computer innovation, regional library networks. Five years ago, Florence joined a federation of 10 northern Wisconsin county libraries to operate a website called

Like the Chicago website, InfoSoup lets users browse and order online books from any library in the federation. When the book becomes available, it is shipped to the nearest library location and Seggelink sends out an email (or phone call) telling the patron the book is in. When the system was introduced, she was getting one or two book orders a week online. Today, she is handling 30 to 40 a day.

“We don’t get that many people these days just walking in to browse the shelves. They do that online so we put our request for books in through the federation,” she said. This allows her to focus her own buying power on filling her Children’s Reading Corner, the most widely used area of the building, and a few titles by local authors.

Neighborhood Libraries as Community Centers

In Chicago, Dempsey makes no bones about expanding the library’s brick and mortar program in a digital age. “You have to understand, it’s a quality of life issue. This investment in libraries –– it’s books, it’s computers, it’s DVD’s; but we’re also building a presence in a neighborhood. We’re saying to the people who live there: ‘You are valued, your neighborhood is valued, and you have the same access to lifelong learning as anyone else.’”

3291257677_af47a13036Mayor Daley has used neighborhood libraries as a change agent in many communities, replacing liquor stores and no-tell motels with an edifice that is about as non-controversial as you can get. Besides the books and computers, most neighborhood branches have meeting rooms available free to community groups, condo boards, hobby clubs, or whatever. Dempsey likens them to “that third place” Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, wrote about where people gather just for the camaraderie or sense of belonging.

“We’re not school. We’re not work. We’re not home,” she said. “We’re a place where people can connect with other people who are like them, or unlike them, for a common purpose . . . and some people come to the library every day just because it’s a place of peace in an otherwise troubled world.”

Beyond Books & Authors

To connect better with neighborhoods, the library has expanded its programs beyond the usual fare of author talks to include poetry slams, fishing pole lending (in 10 locations), and study areas for students with teachers on hand after school to help with homework.

“We do a whole series of seminars called ‘Money Smart’ about financial literacy,” Dempsey added. “The purpose is to teach financial literacy in the least threatening environment possible. You can come and leave at your leisure, keep your identity confidential and maybe learn something; and when you leave, you can check out books that are going to re-enforce what you just learned.”

Another service the Chicago library pioneered is its museum program. In each of the branch locations, there are free family passes that can be checked out to visit the Chicago Art Institute, History Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium and Ravinia Music Festival. Most cultural institutions have donated four to each branch  (The Art Institute has donated ten.) and the program has proven so popular finding an unused pass often means shopping around for branches where they are less utilized.

The Post-College, Pre-Kid Generation

2443314783_771e76f302The library uses its relationship with cultural institutions to cross-promote its ability to develop bibliographies tied to specific exhibits. If the Museum of Science and Industry does an exhibit on pirate ships, for instance, the  library will hand out bookmarks showing how visitors can learn more by visiting the library website. This year, its summer reading program for kids is tied into the Chicago History Museum’s Lincoln Bicentennial. Next year, it will develop reading materials in conjunction with the Chicago Art Institute.

One demographic that is getting special attention is the post-college, pre-kid generation. Although the main library is within walking distance of 60,000 South Loop college students, library officials have noticed a marked fall off in usage after students leave college that doesn’t pick up again until they marry and return with their children for books, movies and other activities.

To reach this group, the Friends of The Library have All Terrain, an Internet-savvy PR firm that also promotes Billy Dec’s Underground nightclub, for an awareness campaign. Over the summer, All-Terrain set up booths at the North Avenue Beach volleyball tournament and other neighborhood festivals, featuring an array of hip music and DVD’s available on the library website, and gave out library cards, hats and sunglasses to prospective users.

Taming the Internet

As much as the library has shifted into the online world, Dempsey retains a healthy skepticism about its benefits. “There’s nothing worse that the Internet in its wild, untamed fashion,” she said. “It’s a mess. It’s full of good information and it’s full of junk. And it’s full of people who just want to spout off in the world of blogs. You know yourself how it has degraded journalism, because everyone thinks they are a journalist; and they are not. So what we do as librarians is take all that information and organize it. We don’t care whether it’s in print, or a digital format, or online.

3270349097_0dd49b02ed“I’ve been a librarian since 1976, and every year since 1976 without fail, people have said that libraries are going to become obsolete. They’re not obsolete. We change faster than people realize, and often we lead the change, especially in the world of technology,” she said.

“Nothing makes me happier than to say no more microfilm, no more microfiche. It’s all online. That’s why librarians and libraries are so important. Whatever format emerges for information and entertainment, people can’t afford to buy it all. So they rely on their library to be a storehouse of information, but also an investment in future technology that will make it available to them.”

(Photos in this story come from the “People Reading” series by Marshall Rosenthal. CLICK HERE to see the complete collection.)

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