Ridwa Yakob knew what libraries had: books.
Then she saw the Teen Tech Center at the Minneapolis Central Library. This digital playground, which opened in 2013, has rows of new computers, iPads, the latest video equipment and even its own soundproof recording studio.
“Growing up, I used to be super into reading. That’s what I thought libraries were for,” said Yakob, 18, of Minneapolis. Now she’s a member of the Teen Tech Squad at the library, helping her peers with all sorts of high-tech resources, learning as she goes. “It gives me access to tools I don’t have at home.”
Shhhhhhh. You may not know it, but libraries have quietly become community tech hubs where the digital tools go far beyond computer terminals with free Internet. Across the metro area, their offerings are expanding as libraries help patrons tinker with 3-D printers, e-readers and social media. A growing catalog of e-books and e-magazines, combined with other online tools, extend resources far beyond the library walls.
Librarians, once masters of the card catalog, have learned to mine information online, offering help with everything from basic computer skills to Facebook and LinkedIn. When it comes to e-readers, in particular, librarians have become the go-to people for answers.
“We’re still teaching literacy. Now it’s digital literacy,” said Kim Johnson, manager of Anoka County’s Rum River Library.
Library patrons wouldn’t have it any other way.
At the most basic level, library users value Internet access almost as highly as books, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. Eighty percent of library-goers surveyed said the ability to borrow books was “very important.” A nearly identical amount said free Internet access also was a “very important” library service.
The library’s role as a tech connection really kicked into gear during the recession, when job seekers needed to brush up on tech skills, search online for jobs and get help with résumés. Library staff members quickly learned to help set up e-mail and LinkedIn accounts, teach basics of Microsoft Word and Excel, and guide patrons toward the most useful information online.
“If you were laid off in the last few years, you have to apply for unemployment online,” said Maureen Gormley, information services manager for the Dakota County Libraries. “We’re the place to go to learn that and basic skills.”
About the same time, e-books hit the virtual shelves. Patrons started walking in with e-readers — and questions.
In 2012, Dakota County added a “reader bar” where the public can test different e-reading devices at the Wescott Library in Eagan. Having a Kindle, Nook and iPad on hand made it easier to demonstrate the technology and answer questions. This year, they installed other such displays at branches in Burnsville, Apple Valley and West St. Paul.
Hennepin County alone saw its e-book downloads jump from 750,000 in 2012 to 1.1 million in 2013.
In Anoka County, library services assistant Andrea Egbert started hosting drop-in tech support twice a week this fall.
“They come and ask me for e-book help. They usually end up with a little bit more,” Egbert said of the litany of tech-related quandaries that library patrons bring to her. Some walk in with new e-readers, still in the box, unsure how to switch on the devices. Job seekers ask for help formatting résumés. Others ask how to share photos and videos online.
Usually, Egbert knows what to do. If not, well, there’s nothing like a question to motivate a librarian to search for answers.
“We all have that thirst for the hunt,” she said.
While most library staffs are happy to help with downloading e-books, browsing the Internet and computer literacy, there are limits to a librarian’s tech support expertise. If you show up with a hardware problem — your tablet won’t turn on or a screen is cracked — the librarians will likely direct you elsewhere.
“We’re not the [Apple] Genius Bar. If somebody drops their iPad in the bathtub, I can’t help you,” said Ben Trapskin, assistant director for Anoka County Libraries. “We try to focus on how the technology interacts with our resources.”
In some cases, technological advances mean less face-to-face interaction at the library. Patrons can download e-books without ever setting foot in their local branch and students can get free homework help by live-chatting with tutors on the library’s website.
Rather than lamenting these changes, librarians like Bernie Farrell see them as a way to expand access to information.
“What the library can do for you is not bound by bricks and mortar,” said Farrell, senior librarian at the Minneapolis Central Library. “This size of the unseen library is pretty immense.”
Gretchen Christenson of Eden Prairie made such a discovery after taking basic computer skills classes at various Hennepin County libraries. Since then, she’s used free online tutorials through the library to learn about everything from Microsoft Excel to the Cloud. “It gives you a start, the ability to learn on your own,” Christenson said.
The library can also be a place to explore technology that is still rare in private homes. The Ramsey County library system bought a MakerBot 3-D printer two years ago, primarily for use with teen programming. It proved so popular that they’ve expanded 3-D printing classes to adults and purchased two new MakerBots.
“These are products that are new and people are sort of figuring out how to use them,” said Marcus Lowry, teen librarian for Ramsey County.
Despite all of the technological advances, librarians say, there will always be books.
Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association, said there is still ample evidence that people largely prefer reading the old-fashioned way, ink on paper.
“We’re not throwing away the relationships and the conversations and the reading of printed books,” Stripling said. “We are adding on and maybe deepening the reading experience through technology.”