“I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.’”
– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Weekly trips to the public library were a staple of my childhood. After school or on the weekend, my mother would set us loose to explore and peruse and pull books down off shelves. It felt like a little slice of unfettered freedom, one deemed safe enough for an eight- or nine-year-old. My brother and I would get lost in the maze of shelves and emerge with stacks of books 15 or 20 deep, accounting for everything from our latest zoological obsessions to classic novels and comic books.

This sepia tone portrait is how many still imagine public libraries: quiet repositories of books waiting to be discovered. And while this remains a recognizable feature of library services, it no longer dominates the picture.

Instead, vast swaths of digital collections, e-books, DVDs, and in the case of the Fraser Valley Regional Library (FVRL), even loaner ukuleles, take up an increasing share of the mosaic of services now available.

FVRL CEO Scott Hargrove points to this perception gap as one of the biggest challenges faced by public libraries as they continue to reinvent themselves: “If you ask 10 people about what the library is, nine of them will say it’s about borrowing books.”

These expectations are slowly changing. A PEW Research Center study conducted in March found that 80 per cent of American adults surveyed said that libraries should definitely “Offer programs to teach people … how to use digital tools.” Hargrove affirms that this is one of the most important mandates of the public library: to provide digital skills training.

“We have always been evolving,” Hargrove says. “Libraries have a long history of adapting and changing their operations, their services, their collections to meet the needs of their customers, their patrons, and their communities.”

What many do not realize is that the electronic services they expect libraries to deliver may already be available. In the same PEW study, only 44 per cent of respondents said their public libraries lend e-books. Yet a report from the University of Maryland found that 90 per cent of libraries already have e-book lending programs.

The challenge with electronic services is that “they’re hard to make visible,” according to Hargrove. “Books on a shelf that people walk in and can see are very easy to find. A lot of those other tools that we offer online tend to be more hidden.”

“We have always been evolving.”

These tools include everything from language learning software to independent movie streaming services and a book-a-librarian program in which patrons set an appointment with a librarian to get help researching a particular topic. Rather than edging out face-to-face interactions, digital collections complement increasingly popular programs like story-time, seniors’ gatherings, and robotics workshops.

“Libraries like FVRL across the country are seeing double-digit percentage growth in programming,” Hargrove says. By moving some collections online, each library branch can operate as more fully realized community space in the 15 districts and municipalities served by the FVRL.

“There was a study out from UBC in 2011 that showed that while people are more connected than ever through the internet, they’re actually feeling more socially isolated than ever,” Hargrove says.

“An area that our municipalities generally feel very strongly about is ensuring that there are many social services like the library available to build those strong community relationships.”

The library’s community ties extend to partnerships to provide more content and services to patrons. In fact, the library’s ukulele lending program got its start when a community partner approached the FVRL with an idea and a set of ukuleles. Soon, new patrons were signing up in droves for the chance to try out a ukulele. “Even in my wildest dreams,” Hargrove says, “I wouldn’t have imagined that a year ago.”

The ukulele borrowing scheme is so popular because it removes the cost barrier for an activity many would like to try. “How many families have two or three musical instruments collecting dust in the closet that they got for their kids, who played them for two or three weeks and then decided they didn’t like it?” says Hargrove.

By further expanding borrowing options beyond books and traditional media, public libraries are positioning themselves alongside popular services like Netflix, Spotify, and Car2Go which provide digital media or physical resources on demand, but at a cost. The advantage to library patrons is that everything the library offers is free for them to use.

“Libraries are the original sharing economy,” Hargrove says. As the public moves further away from ownership of items that require onerous maintenance or are infrequently used, the library finds itself in a position to offer more of these services. Deciding where to invest a pool of limited public funding is one of the greatest challenges in an era of abundant choice.

“It would be tempting to see that as a detriment,” Hargrove says. “I don’t see it as that. For me, it helps keep us focused and fresh, which is exciting. It forces us to capitalize on things that matter to people and not worry about the things that don’t.”


Your Raspberry Guide to FVRL Databases

Although I’ve been a regular patron of public libraries since I was a kid, I had no idea the breadth and depth of online resources the Fraser Valley Regional Library has to offer. The FVRL databases are a constantly growing supply well worth exploring on your own. Rather than an exhaustive guide, consider this your primer on some of the best digital resources available right now:

EBSCOhost

College and university graduates will likely be well-acquainted with this deep pool of scholarly articles, studies and much more. It also includes back issues of Consumer Reports, a valuable tool in making any major purchasing decision. FVRL CEO Scott Hargrove points to this as one of the best, yet underused, resources available: “If you’re looking for trusted, scientifically based information, it’s one of the best places to find it.”


InstantFlix: Powered by IndieFlix

Tired of drowning in the abundance of lacklustre films congesting your streaming video service? InstantFlix features a collection of hand-selected film festival favourites and older, critically acclaimed movies. There may be less to choose from, but anyone who’s spent far too much of their evening browsing the hundreds of mediocre options most streaming services deliver will be grateful for this level of focus.


Lynda.com

If you’ve ever wanted to improve your design skills, learn how to code, or take an extra business leadership course from a recognized expert, Lynda offers thousands of video courses including a broad range of career skills training. Access to Lynda’s high-quality typically costs $30 per month, but library members can access it for free.


Mango Language

Need to brush up on your Spanish for an upcoming trip to Argentina? Or have you always wanted to become fluent in Canada’s other official language? Mango Language offers premium language instruction through a combination of visual cues, reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Its better-known rival software Rosetta Stone can often cost hundreds of dollars for a similar language learning program.


Zinio for Libraries

Choose from thousands of leading magazines like Mental Floss, National Geographic, and many more. With Zinio, you can subscribe to and download these magazines directly to your phone or tablet to read on the go. Never pay for a Cosmo again!

 

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These resources and many more can be found at fvrl.bc.ca/databases.php

Photo by Stewart Butterfield/ flickr