By LORETTA WALDMAN
February 20, 2015
Public libraries have been about more than books for decades, but the digitization of information and head-spinning pace of technological innovation has resulted in an expansion of offerings that Andrew Carnegie, or Jules Verne for that matter, could scarcely have imagined.
To their book discussions and story times, public libraries are adding 3-D printers and "Maker" spaces — an area where patrons of all ages can try out the printers, dabble in computer coding or work individually, or collaboratively, to create DIY technology. In Connecticut and elsewhere, robotics programs are hot. The library in Westport even acquired a pair of humanoid robots, Vincent and Nancy, to teach robotics and programming. Hartford Public Library is hosting job fairs and job training in partnership with community and state agencies. Patrons of the public library in Southington have access to more than 800 free online noncredit courses.
This evolution is stretching library resources as never before and altering the fundamental role of libraries in the community, says Jennifer Keohane, executive director of the Connecticut Library Consortium, a statewide membership collaborative supporting all types of Connecticut libraries. Instead of warehouses of information, public libraries are becoming information exchanges: places people not only go to learn but to interact with ideas, new technology, services and each other, she said.
Bucking predictions that technology would render them irrelevant, public libraries are busier than ever, Keohane and others say. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center concluded that more than two-thirds of Americans age 16 and older are actively engaged with libraries.
"Because people are lacking a way to interact with each other, they are coming to us," Keohane said. "Libraries are the new town green."
Hartford Public Library has become a national model for community engagement efforts. Last year, it was selected as one of 10 libraries nationally to undergo an intensive 18-month, team-based community engagement training program as part of the ALA's "Libraries Transforming Communities" project. The partnership with The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, helps libraries develop and distribute new tools, resources to engage with their communities in new ways, according to the ALA.