Library 2.0: balancing books and bytes

North Shore libraries look to the future while building community ties

BOOK lover Heidi Woodley doesn't have to go far to find a good book.

Just a few paces from her front door and before she steps off the curb, Woodley is at the library, where she can choose a well-worn book for herself or three-year-old son Mason. The North Vancouver resident is the custodian of a streetside library, a book kiosk built mostly from architectural salvage. It has cabinet doors to protect its literary treasures and an A-frame with deep overhang to encourage considered browsing.

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The streetside library - in the 700-block of West 20th St., off Fell Avenue, north of Capilano Mall - was built with funds from a Vancouver Foundation grant, its opening celebrated with a block party early this fall.

Woodley enlisted the help of her father, Eric Peterson, a civil engineer and hobby carpenter, to construct the library. It holds 50 or so books, with children's titles on a bottom shelf at toddler eye level where a candy jar attracts attention and helps to "raise early readers," says Woodley, who curates the collection that changes daily as passersby add to or take from the selection.

As its caretaker, "I sort it out and fluff it up. The neighbours come by; it's part of people's routine," says Woodley, who built a similar book shelter in Victoria's Fernwood North Park neighbourhood before moving to North Vancouver a year and a half ago.

The 42-year-old stay-at-home mom has not yet jumped on the e-reader bandwagon. "I'm a bit of a dinosaur," she admits. "I like to hold a book in my hands. I like the whole physical experience."

People's notions of a library are changing. And across the North Shore, our municipally funded public libraries are also changing the way they serve the community in order to better navigate the digital divide.

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Ninety-four per cent of District of North Vancouver residents have a library card, according to Heather Scoular, director of library services for North Vancouver District Public Library.

The main library at Lynn Valley and two branches, Parkgate and Capilano, together form the busiest mid-size library in Canada.

As outlined in its 2011-2013 strategic plan, the library aims to be the community's "third place," a place beyond the home or the workplace - a centre of community life.

A year of community consultation helped inform the strategic plan, which was put in place in mid-2011. Through that consultation process, Scoular says, the library board and staff learned more about the role of the public library in community life.

"North Vancouver residents are so supportive of their libraries. They believe in that community hub, that sense of place, that local destination both virtual and physical that allows them to feel they are a community," says Scoular.

The current strategic plan identifies library service improvements as its No. 1 priority. The library is working on identifying under-served regions and populations as well as exploring alternative delivery models.

Not content to be one of the busiest libraries in the country, the library is looking at how it can best deliver its services in the community and, in effect, reach out to that other six per cent.

"Going out into the community is extremely important," says Scoular, who mentions the creation this past year of an outreach co-ordinator for children and teens. The new position is filled by Alison Campbell, former children's librarian at Lynn Valley, the district's main library. Scoular also lists a reading program partnership with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

Community-building partnerships are another priority, such as the successful Capilano Universe program. The series of free presentations are cosponsored by Capilano University and take place at the district, City of North Vancouver and District of West Vancouver public libraries. Guest speaker presentations explore an array of topics, from a sociological look at the custom of honeymooning to advancements in stroke recovery.

"We reach out. . . . We can't wait for everyone to come to us," says Scoular.

In October, the library conducted a survey that was designed to reach those who tend not to use the library. The survey was open to those who have not been to a district library in the past year. It was open to both district residents and non-district residents. More than 1,300 community members completed the survey. Full survey results won't be made public until early 2013, but preliminary findings are giving the library organization a snapshot of the future.

One of the survey's main goals was to identify and break down barriers that keep user groups like low-income families and the unemployed from accessing the library and its services. An important survey finding is the need for the library to increase the public's awareness of its digital resources.

"People still have a traditional book-type notion of their public library," says Scoular. "(Digital information) is an important part of our future. The community's future. We are a community resource for digital literacy."

One of the newest digital resources the library is keen to promote is Ancestry Library Edition. The popular research tool offers the most comprehensive genealogical information available online, allowing users to access birth, marriage, death, immigration and military records, as well ships' passenger lists, and images and indexes for Canadian, U.K. and U.S. census records - all for free from a library computer terminal. The resource is available on computers in all three branches of NVDPL.

The library's digital offerings are increasing in popularity, says Scoular. "Our print collection is still in demand, but our digital demands are also growing."

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In 2011, the West Vancouver Memorial Library had the highest circulation per hour open of any library in British Columbia. During peak times, all 288 chairs in the library are occupied and its users have given it a 98 per cent satisfaction rating, as noted in its 2011 annual report.

Even with such favourable facts and figures, West Vancouver's public library is rewriting its future. "We see our roles changing quite rapidly with the changing environment," says Jenny Benedict, West Vancouver Memorial Library's director of library services.

The drivers of change are numerous. Firstly, the library is facing economic pressures to become more sustainable. "It's more important than ever that we're conscientious of the natural resources we're using," says Benedict.

The library at 1915 Marine Drive was originally constructed in 1950 and expanded five times, with additions completed in 1957, 1962, 1977, 1993 and 2005. The building had a patchwork structure of mechanical and electrical systems and a variety of roofing styles. Green initiatives and facility upgrades contributed to measurable drops in electrical, gas and water consumption over the last five years and led to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification for existing buildings, the first library in Canada to receive such an award.

Technology is also driving change, and that's leading the library to support 21st century learning at both ends of the spectrum. An in-house survey used to help prepare the library's 2011-2015 strategic plan revealed that 93 per cent of respondents reported having access to Internet at home, an MP3, smartphone or e-reader.

"The school district provides a certain technological infrastructure for the students, but then there are assignments that are needed to complete outside of school. We cannot assume in our communities that every family is going to be able to provide technology at home or have the expertise in it to support our students. The library can fill that gap in the digital divide."

The library is also looking at how it can best serve an aging population.

West Vancouver was the first library in Canada to have an e-reader lending program. A year on, the library sees an expanded role as a teacher of that technology, especially to its most senior patrons.

"Using technological tools enables them to be more socially connected," says Benedict. "We have a lot of seniors who come into the library seeking assistance. They want to know how to use an e-reader or how to set themselves up on Facebook."

This point is illustrated in the library's most recent annual report, which contains visitor comments, including a quote attributed to West Vancouver senior Mrs. Laforme, who writes: "Because of macular degeneration, this library has been a lifesaver. I cannot read print anymore so I use the talking book MP3s and CDs every night to go to sleep. Much better than pharmaceuticals."

The library's well-loved Bookmobile still services homebound West Vancouverites, visiting six assisted living care facilities in the area, but has been suitably downsized for the ages. A Honda Fit econo car replaces the gas-guzzling bus that used to take library resources out into the community.

For those who rarely step through the library doors, Benedict would like to spread the word that the library is a public space - one of few indoor public spaces in the municipality, she notes - and that there is much to be enjoyed, even by those who don't intend to check out a book.

"Some people come for the quiet and the study space. We also have lots of nice nooks and crannies where people can put themselves in that space where they can be reflective," says Benedict. "At the other end, we have spaces where people gather, whether it's for informal conversation with a friend or meeting spaces for groups to get together."

There's a growing interest in groups that gather to have an interactive experience. The West Van library is responding by offering an increase in this type of programming, says Benedict, who gives as an example a series of music talks on jazz.

Visits to the library's homepage have more than doubled in the last five years. Demands for staff assistance have also almost doubled with requests for reading recommendations, research and instruction.

The West Van library's youth department is particularly good at "app advisory," evaluating new computer applications and making recommendations on what is good and appropriate, says Benedict.

Next spring, West Vancouver Memorial Library will relaunch its website with an improved catalogue search and new features to make it more accessible to smartphones and tabloid users. There will also be a new online research centre.

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The North Vancouver City Library boasts award-winning architectural design, automated checkout stations, solar heating, a Brazza cafe, an outdoor reading room with views of Lions Gate Bridge and a teen room equipped with study tables, game gear and a 52-inch TV. It's been four years since the library opened at its new location at the 14th Street civic plaza, staff have settled in and the library's vision is to strengthen its community connections, says chief librarian Jane Watkins.

"We're at the place now where we're comfortable in our new container. We want to be involved in community activity."

Watkins says the library's 2013 strategic plan is aligned with the city's official community plan. The city has a high proportion of youth at risk and new Canadians. The library can play a role in making them feel welcome in the community.

Results of a recent survey show that library patrons see their local library as more than a lender of books. When asked what they'd like to see at their library, residents' comments included a tool loan service to support the community garden program, a dialogue centre, continuous computer learning and a production space.

In the future, "we won't just be about circulating books or getting that DVD but supporting those trends. That's a big change for this library," says Watkins.

Watkins talks about the challenge of balancing books and bytes. Digital resources fill a need "but there's also a desire to still be able to have that lovely conversation with a staff member when you come in," she says. "Personal interaction is still a really important part of library service."

Soon, the library will be a test site for IndieFlix, which will allow patrons free unlimited streaming of high-quality independent films shown at international film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. The library is also greatly expanding its collection of e-book titles.

Also in development is a community creativity centre, where library users could potentially make their own pod cast, music or movie. The library will take next year to plan and consult and 2014 to implement the initiative, says Christopher Koth, digital services librarian. Koth is also tasked with revamping the city library's website, which will go live in the new year.

"Our patrons are not just passive receivers of information," says Koth. "People today are creators of information and content. The library of the future, which we are fully embracing - makes that content that they've produced known. Just like the Internet transitioned from something we used to something we interact with, libraries are becoming places people go to create their content and distribute. It's almost like Library 2.0."

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