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April 07. 2013 10:21PM

NH libraries say they're busy in electronic age


Denise van Zantan, library director at Manchester City Library, uses her Android phone to reserve and read books. Today's public libraries offer downloadable books and audio books in addition to their printed formats. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)

IF EVERYONE is using smart phones, e-readers and laptops for everything, do we still need public libraries?

Actually, New Hampshire librarians say they're busier than ever.

State librarian Michael York noted library visits statewide were up 34 percent from 2006 to 2011, when more than 7.5 million visits were recorded.

There were 780,318 registered library patrons at New Hampshire's 234 public libraries in 2011. And libraries held 38,392 programs that year, which 644,229 attended.

Kingston, Portsmouth, Jackson and West Lebanon all have new libraries, and new buildings have been approved in Sunapee, Durham and Bethlehem, according to the state Department of Cultural Resources.

For greying baby boomers, many offer lectures by scholars, concerts, book talks, travel programs and art exhibits.

There are writing, cooking and anime clubs for teens, story times for younger kids and family movie nights. There's free computer use and wi-fi access, and meeting spaces where community organizations gather.

And when the power goes out, librarians say, their buildings are filled with local residents looking to warm up and charge their electronic devices.

Last Friday, nearly all 18 public computers in the reading room at the Manchester City Library were in use before 9 a.m. One man was looking for a truck to purchase, while a young woman and her tutor worked on an assignment.

Downstairs, children's librarian Karyn Isleb was leading a dozen toddlers through a fast-paced hour of reading, songs and physical activity.

Kaitlyn Woods of Manchester comes every Friday with her 18-month-old son, Samuel.

"He gets to socialize with the other kids," she said. "Obviously, reading is very important, so it gets him exposed to books at an early age."

And as a stay-at-home mom, she said, "It gets me out of the house."

Woods recalls picking out books at the library when she was a child, but doesn't remember these kinds of programs. "It does seem they're more focused on outreach to the community, trying to get people inside the library," she said.

e-books and more

Even if more people are reading e-books these days, York said, many still depend on libraries for access. Most people, he said, "can't afford to purchase every book they want to read."

The state library manages the New Hampshire Downloadable Books Consortium, which gives 192 public libraries - and 1.2 million Granite Staters - access to e-books, York said. "Which means that people in Errol in essence have basically the same service in terms of downloadable books that the larger libraries in the southern part of the state have."

In addition, a group of 12 public and academic libraries in southern New Hampshire, known as GMILCS, recently added a second platform for downloadable books, the 3M Cloud Library.

Readers can look up the books they want in their library's online catalog and reserve a copy with a touch. Just like a print book, an e-book can be "borrowed" for two weeks.

Susan Brown is assistant director at Derry Public Library, which is in the GMILCS group. She said at the national level, librarians are negotiating with book publishers over downloadable content.

Under a licensing agreement, Brown said, libraries have to pay for each digital copy of a book (at a price much higher than retail), and patrons wait in line to "borrow" that copy. Some publishers essentially "lease" books to libraries, with a limit on how many times a book can be checked out, typically 26 times, before the lease expires, she said.

Denise van Zanten, director of Manchester City Library, which is also in GMILCS, said libraries are adapting to changing technology. Her library has begun circulating "pre-loaded" Kindles and Nooks.

And she said, "There's a lot of stuff now on the library's web site that we've developed so that when our doors are physically closed, your library is still accessible to you."

"You can do your homework in your P.J.'s."

Many patrons depend on the free computers at the library to apply for government services, look for jobs, obtain tax forms and access school assignments, librarians say.

About 1,500 people a week use the library's computers in Derry, Brown said.

"People need to get what they need and they often don't know how, so they come to their public library because there are people who know how to get that information to them," Brown said.

In fact, van Zanten said some of her library's busiest days are right after Christmas, when patrons swarm in, looking for help with the new electronic devices they received. "People come in with their stuff still in the packages and say, 'Help!'" she said.

swickham@unionleader.com


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