RIO RANCHO, N.M. — People might no longer be calling their local library reference desk to find out who the 23rd president was or to settle a debate with their neighbor. They have their smartphone for that.
Instead, they now can go there to learn how to knit, attend community meetings, get tips on using their tablets and phones, even on how to start a business.
Of course, that’s in addition to the library’s core mission of providing books and information – only now on a lot of different platforms.
And it’s all free.
Cindy Burns’ first glimpse behind the scenes at the local library was in the mid-’80s when she started working at the city’s main branch Downtown.
At that time, she said, librarians took turns rotating through different work stations, including the reference desk. She said people would call looking for the answers to a crossword puzzle or inquiring about the availability of a certain book.
“The calls came in so quickly,” Burns said. “You had to just ask people to hold and keep answering. Some days they could be waiting two hours for you to help them.”
Burns said not only will people no longer tolerate a wait that long, the reference librarians are no longer dealing with the same call volume. As a result, she said large reference sections at smaller branch libraries are no longer needed, but that doesn’t mean libraries are no longer necessary. If anything, she said they’ve become even more necessary with the emergence of new technology.
Today, she said, people use the library for Internet access. Librarians also take calls from people looking for help with their own electronic devices. If they need more instruction, patrons can make an appointment for a face-to-face session with a librarian.
Dean Smith, director of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County library system, said as technology has evolved so has the modern library.
“The public library is an especially American tradition,” Smith said. “It’s a truly democratic institution where all are welcome on an equal footing.”
Libraries in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho offer different types of free programs for the community, in addition to a place the public can hold meetings, as well as movies, concerts and special presentations. There is story hour – sometimes with dancing, other times with puppets – Lego club; adult crafting, knitting and stitching clubs; teen writing clubs; basic computer classes; preschool science activities; tax help; and even genealogy workshops, to name a few.
Lynette Schurdevin, director of library and information services for Rio Rancho, said their library system has teamed up with the local police department to provide safety training classes to the public once a month. The Rio Rancho libraries also offer classes on basic computer coding and a 3-D printing workshop for elementary school students.
Albuquerque also recently set up Trep Centers at the new library on Central and the main library. The centers offer resources for people wanting to start a new business and are staffed with librarians who have knowledge of networking groups and services available through the city’s economic development office.
The city of Albuquerque recently opened a large, new library on Unser and Central and is renovating its older libraries. Mayor Richard Berry said the city is dedicated to its library system although he’s heard the argument that the smartphone is the new library. He said libraries still have their place. The city, he said, does not want to abandon the tradition of the library but instead augment it.
“The purpose of libraries – expanding horizons, connecting the public to resources and helping people advance – has never changed,” he said. “What has changed is the delivery method.”
The city/county system still provides books to check-out in the traditional format but also in electronic format, on CDs and digital audio files that can be downloaded temporarily on individual devices.
Continuous investment in the library, Smith said, is crucial. The library saw a dip in its circulation after its funding for new materials from the city and county was slashed 10 years ago. Smith said the library went from receiving $5 million every two years to about $2.5 million.
He said the library no longer had the materials people needed. Circulation during the 2009-10 fiscal year was 4.95 million. Two years later it dropped to a low of 3.99 million but since funding was restored, Smith said attendance is on the upswing again.
The library system is once again receiving $5 million from the city and county every two years. Circulation is up about 1.84 percent over where it was last year at this time. The 2014-15 fiscal year circulation was 4.04 million.
Back to the books
Smith said the city continues to adapt its library to changing needs.
“Public libraries have always been a storage place for information and a place for people to gather,” he said. “Being used as a place for people to gather has increased over the last 10 years.”
But it all comes back to the books.
Berry said he still likes the feel of a physical book and the availability of free books will always be important. Schurdevin agrees.
“We are still relevant in the community,” she said. “That element of wanting to read books will always be there but now there are different ways to read.”