The long-established tradition of checking out hardcover books from the library is still alive. But an ever-evolving digital age, combined with lingering COVID-19 impacts, have reshaped the ways libraries are utilized as a resource and a space for the public.
The pandemic pushed patrons more toward digital media — such as e-books, audiobooks, music and movies —which can be accessed for free through libraries on the Treasure Coast. The national trend of relying on online resources translated to Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties as library systems adapted to the communities’ needs.
“An overall increase happened with us having a larger volume of e-books and availability for the patrons, so they took advantage,” said Betsy Stenger, Indian River County director of library services.
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The Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association, reported in a 2020 survey that 74% of public libraries nationwide had expanded their online services such as e-books while 61% added virtual programming such as online classes and prerecorded storytimes.
“The pandemic definitely opened up the accessibility and the want for streaming services from libraries,” said ALA President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada.
Library-card signups rebounding
Across the Treasure Coast, though, new library card registrations dipped in 2020, although they’re slowly rebounding to prepandemic numbers. Martin County had the strongest resurgence in the past five years, data shows.
Before the pandemic, however, libraries had been shaping services based on other trends, such as demographic data. In Martin County, for example, a predicted increase in Hispanic population resulted in more English classes in areas such as Indiantown.
“Something like that we saw coming, and we planned for it,” said Richard Reilly, Martin County deputy library director. “Overall, when there’s trends, not just in ‘library land’ but throughout our community, we try to embrace it and pilot things.”
In-person classes, events and technologies offered through libraries also signify their roles as community and educational spaces.
In Martin County, patrons can use a flight simulator at the Robert Morgade branch west of Port Salerno. In St. Lucie County, children younger than 6 can dance and sing on Friday mornings at the Lakewood Park branch. In Indian River County, a meeting room at the Brackett Library doubles as a Dungeons & Dragons game space at night.
“I think there is still a very big desire to have the library as a physical space because it’s really one of the last ‘third places’ left … Outside of your home and your work or school, there’s not a whole lot of places left that you can go to completely for free,” said Natalie Greene Taylor, associate professor at the University of South Florida School of Information.
Striking a balance
A balance is needed between online and in-person resources, she added.
Bridging the gap between older and newer technology is another asset libraries provide, said Erick Gill, St. Lucie County spokesperson.
“The libraries have embraced older-technology, creating spaces like the Memory Studio, which houses equipment and software that allows residents to convert VHS tapes to digital video files and scan old photos to make digital copies,” he said.
Libraries have found ways to be more nimble as they adapt to the demographics of their clientele.
Similarly, the stereotype of libraries appealing only to older residents to read newspapers or to children for storytime is changing, especially as social media facilitates “multigenerational engagement,” Pelayo-Lozada said.
“The millennial generation is one of the highest users of the library,” she said. “As a millennial myself, I look toward all these really interesting and creative library programs … I just am able to see myself and be interested in what is happening because it does apply to me as well.”