State Librarian Says Libraries Are Evolving With Digital Age and Changing Needs of Public

The digital age and tight budgets have posed challenges to public libraries across the country. Some have questioned the relevancy of traditional libraries but New Jersey State Librarian Mary Chute tells NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that libraries continue to be a vital resource for the public, especially during tough economic times.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found an increase in e-book reading, while showing a decline in print book reading.

Chute says the demand for more electronic forms of content means that more people are reading, which is a good thing. Chute adds that libraries are working to meet that demand.

“We’re in the process of working collaboratively with publishers to figure out exactly how we can help do that and deliver those products,” she explained. “The convenience of reading wherever you are because you can get it on your personal device is a real plus.”

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Budget cuts have forced libraries to become leaner and more creative, according to Chute. Still, she admits that public libraries have been hard-hit by the recession, requiring careful management and strategic planning.

“Here in New Jersey, we’re in the middle of a strategic plan for library service across the state,” she said. “It’s multi-type, not just public, but it is providing the state library with the opportunity to meet with academic libraries, to meet with people from public libraries, school libraries, the whole blend in order to determine how we can help them leverage this planning at their own level and how we as the state library can determine what we can provide that will maybe help all of them.”

Libraries serve a variety of of public functions, beyond it’s role as a repository of information. The slow economy has left many unemployed or under-employed and Chute says “librarians have become very adept at helping people with employment applications.”

They are an integral part of the infrastructure in their communities as important centers of civic engagement and community building, Chute adds. This was never more apparent than during times of crisis like Hurricane Sandy, when some libraries acted as formal parts of an emergency team, she said. And in the aftermath of the storm, some libraries worked to restore normalcy to residents and provided valuable assistance to Sandy victims.

“This goes from libraries that were open on Sundays to help with FEMA applications even though they didn’t normally have Sunday hours, libraries that were open on election day because polling places had changed even though they were supposed to be closed on election day. So as always, the library stepped up to be that community anchor, that community center.”

Chute says that an event in April will bring together library staff to discuss lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how things can be improved when the next emergency hits.