With job-hunting resources, educational programs and wall-to-wall free entertainment, libraries were the place to be during the recession.
But as the economy recovers and e-book use increases, people are taking fewer trips to browse the bookshelves.
Library visits dropped 12 percent, on average, from 2009 to 2014, according to reports from the seven metro counties. Circulation also fell, but only by 5 percent. Administrators credit the rise of the e-book, in part, for keeping circulation from plummeting further.
“While people don’t visit us in the library, they visit us in virtual space,” Carver County Library Director Heidi Hoks said.
As the option to select a book without leaving home becomes increasingly popular, people are changing how they use the library. Programs, from story time to local history lectures, are increasingly important to draw people in. And librarians are taking on online roles.
Ian Stade is Hennepin County’s online communication senior librarian. It’s a new format for an old job.
Stade answers readers’ questions on Facebook and Twitter. He manages online conversations called “Read This Next” and suggests titles. He is looking into live streaming talks with authors.
“We need to provide a community, whether they do come in to the building or they’re online,” Stade said.
Michelle Halliday of Lakeville said library usage is not an either/or situation. She reads e-books, but still visits the library weekly for audiobooks. Librarians have helped her with Kindle e-reader troubles.
“They want you to use the library, and they want you to be on the e-books,” Halliday said.
As more people turn to libraries’ digital collections, officials must balance e-book and digital audiobook spending with other expenses. E-books can cost libraries three to four times as much as print copies, but librarians said that is paying off in readership.
That’s evident in Washington County, the only metro county to see circulation rise since the recession. Library Director Pat Conley credits the growth to a $100,000 increase in last year’s budget for purchasing e-books and digital audio books. The library saw thousands of new users join their digital accounts, and overall circulation increased 14 percent since 2009.
Most counties saw rapid increases in digital downloads over the past few years.
“I have every confidence that in the future we’re going to see a tipping point where more things are going to be accessed electronically,” Anoka County Library Director Marlene Moulton Janssen said.
But Anoka County Library is nowhere near that point yet. Digital circulation made up about 8 percent of its total circulation last year.
‘A destination point’
Ryan Stattman has seen his extended family’s visits to the library trail off as they took to e-books. But he still regularly takes his children to programs at the Burnsville library.
Such programs, for both children and adults, are growing in popularity.
Attendance at presentations on Anoka County history have quadrupled over the past few years, Moulton Janssen said.
“I think as we become more engaged electronically, I think there will be a growing need to engage on a personal level,” she said.
The growth is in line with a national trend highlighted in the American Library Association’s “The State of America’s Libraries” report released this week. More than 92 million people attended programs at public libraries in 2012, up 54 percent from a decade ago, according to the report.
“No longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished spaces,” the association said.
Basic computer lessons and other résumé-building programs attracted people during the recession. As the economy recovers, community interest is shifting and library directors said they are trying to come up with programming that will attract visitors.
When Dakota County recently remodeled libraries, they added meeting space for gatherings. In Hennepin County, officials want to make a trip to the library an experience, like visiting a museum or park, said Ali Turner, a division manager at the countylibrary.
“We really work to make ourselves a destination point,” Turner said. “We’re much more than a place where you come and pick up your books.”
On Thursday morning at Inver Glen Library in Inver Grove Heights, children roared like dinosaurs, examined a fossil and watched actors bring stories to life during a “Dinosaurs Galore” program.
Dakota County is promoting childhood reading this year, and libraries are decked out in bright advertising, with stickers on tables and banners along walls for the “Raise a Reader” campaign. It held an amnesty program for the first time in February, allowing people blocked by fines to start using the library again.
They are trying to draw in readers, but the fall in visits — down nearly 17 percent since the recession — is not the reason for the campaign, Dakota County Library Director Ken Behringer said.
A postrecession decline was expected, many library directors said, adding that funding is not tied to visits. The dip in circulation also has not impacted funding, they said.
“[County Commissioners] understand the value of libraries,” Hoks, of Carver County, said. “And I think that goes beyond circulation figures.”