(Updates with additional information)
By Richard Chang
NEW YORK, June 23 (Reuters Life!) - Libraries in the
Internet age have morphed from somber institutions into social
hubs for job seekers, small business owners and local residents
looking for advice, help or a free meeting place.
The bespectacled librarian has been replaced by a hip,
tech-savvy social networker and as books have gone digital,
freeing space, cafes have sprung up in libraries, along with
rooms for classes, gaming, talks and performances.
"The whole thing about the silent shushing librarian is no
longer a reality," said Nader Qaimari, of Cengage Learning,
which provides teaching and learning materials to educational
institutions and libraries.
"The new librarian has been on Facebook or Twitter longer
than you or I have. They're the most socially connected people
I've ever met."
With so much information online, librarians have become
free guides to learning and are often the first people job
seekers turn to if they have no computer at home. During the
recession libraries have become centers for career counseling,
financial literacy and small business development.
"We're not trying to compete with Google. Google answers
more questions in one afternoon than all the public libraries
in a year," said Bill Ptacek, director of the King County
Library System in Washington state.
"We look at our role as a content provider to our
In New York City, public libraries have never been busier.
Annual visits exceed 16 million, the highest in a century,
according to Ann Thornton, acting director of the New York
Circulations of print and electronic materials are
estimated to reach 27.5 million this year, a spokesman said.
A 2010 study by the nonprofit OCLC Online Computer Library
Center found that Americans hit by the recession are 50 percent
more likely to visit their library at least weekly and are
nearly a third more likely to visit at least once a month.
"Eighty-one percent of economically impacted Americans have
a library card compared to 68 percent of Americans who have not
been impacted," the report said.
Public libraries are also partnering with schools and have
created room so students who need help with homework can work
"Reading is a social sport," said Brian Kenney, editorial
director of the Library Journal, a trade publication for
librarians, citing the popularity of library book clubs.
"People want to get together and share what they've read."
The King County Library System, which was named Library of
the Year, has an active outreach program, which delivers books
to neighborhoods and visits house-bound people.
"Everybody in this community believes that reading is a
good thing and the biggest problem is that they don't have time
to read," Ptacek said.
His library places books and periodicals in gas stations
and waiting rooms where people can squeeze in a few minutes of
reading time. It is based on the honor system.
"If they want to take the book home they can. We'll replace
them. How bad is that?" he said.
Libraries have also gone online. The busiest time for the
New York Public Library for e-materials is after its doors
close, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., according to Thornton, who said
it had nearly 29 million web visits last year.
As libraries become even more vibrant social hubs, many
shopping centers are rooting for branches to be opened nearby
so they can get more customers, Ptacek said.
For some libraries the biggest challenge is parking.
"They don't have enough space to accommodate people.
Traffic is no longer an issue," said Qaimari.