Nebraska Public Libraries Adapting to New Reality

Anderson Branch Library in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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January 25, 2018 - 6:45am

We’ve probably all heard the predictions, that in the current disruptive internet and digital age, traditional public libraries don’t have much of a future. They’ve heard it too, but instead of panicking, they’ve adapted and modified their mission. Public libraries in Nebraska are changing their focus and embracing new ways of staying relevant.  

On a weekday morning at Anderson Branch Library in Lincoln, Pete the Cat is the center of attention. He’s the main character in a series of children’s books.

Pete isn’t saying much, but the kids are enjoying him. So are the parents, including Samantha Jacobi, who brought her two-and-a-half-year-old son Royce.

“He’s a stay at home kid with just me, so I try to get him involved with other kids and activities as much as possible,” Jacobi said.  

Pete the Cat performs at a Lincoln, Nebraska library. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)  

It’s a valuable resource for moms like Jacobi, but also a lifeline of sorts for the library. The Lincoln City Library System has increased its programming for kids significantly over the last few years. Almost 120,000 children attended programs at the system’s eight locations last year, up more than 20,000 from the year before.

“Our statistics indicate in the last 15 years we’ve more than doubled program attendance,” said Pat Leach, director of Lincoln City Libraries. She also hosts a weekly book review segment on NET Radio.

Leach has seen the rapid changes in how people read books, a shift that has meant fewer print books on the shelves and more e-books. But she says, that too could change.    

Lincoln Public Libraries director Pat Leach. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“The pendulum seems to be slowing as far as how far it’s going toward electronic reading and a lot of people still prefer print books,” Leach said. “So we’re watching those trends really closely. For instance, we’re looking at some studies showing that the millennial generation prefers print books. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of that, but of course it has huge ramifications for libraries.”

A recent Pew Research study also found millennials are the most likely generation to use public libraries, a positive sign for planners plotting the future.

Nebraska Library Commission director Rod Wagner advocates for the several hundred public libraries across Nebraska. While some have seen attendance level off or decline, programming and circulation of electronic materials have gone up.

The Commission is also partnering with The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Innovation Studio and 30 public libraries to create so-called makerspaces, areas that include computers, 3D printers and audio and visual editing capabilities. It could be the future of libraries.

Nebraska Library Commission director Rod Wagner. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“It’s interesting to see some of the things that libraries are offering and the imagination of the people who are making use of those makerspace devices. Lots of different things are coming out of that project,” Wagner said.                   

Local funding has stayed mostly steady, with new or renovated libraries opened recently in Hastings, Broken Bow and Blair. There are plans for a new central library in Lincoln as well. Wagner believes libraries have learned to pivot and respond to the shifting needs of the community.

“Libraries have demonstrated that they are very adaptable. They’re very much alert to their communities, what the people in their communities want and need,” Wagner said. “Many are very creative about providing services based on what they learned from community members.”

Some of those services include better broadband and stronger Wi-Fi service in libraries, like the one in Gretna, near Omaha. Library director Krissy Reed has seen computer or Wi-Fi use increase more than 20 percent over the past year.     

“A library isn’t just a fixed asset. It’s an ever changing organism and it adapts to the environment it’s in at that time,” Reed said.  

Gretna has one main branch and a smaller children’s library, but unlike others faced with declining attendance, they’ve seen growth.

Gretna Public Library director Krissy Reed. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“Our circulation of hard copy materials and our attendance in our actual libraries is increasing actually. We just did our numbers from 2017 and we saw increases across the board when it came to circulation as well as in-library visits,” Reed said.

Libraries are also getting out more. Instead of being a place that people come to, they’re going to the community and marketing themselves much more effectively than they used to.

“Because of our ability to adapt, because of our responsiveness to what our communities are telling us what they need and want from their libraries, I have great optimism that we will continue to be important in our communities, have an impact in our communities and be recognized as an important community player,” said Jim Neal, president of the New York-based American Library Association.   

Back in Lincoln, Samantha Jacobi says she’s pretty sure public libraries will remain useful as her son Royce gets older.

“I definitely think so. I think they’re a great resource for people to come and learn and use them and kids to run and be adventurous,” Jacobi said.

It’s a resource that’s finding new ways to adapt to a future that’s full of change.     

You can find more of NET Radio's reporting on the future of libraries in Nebraska here.



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