Public libraries changing with the times

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 4, 1999

DEBORAH CORRAO / L’Observateur / May 4, 1999

Lots of folks are checking out their local libraries nowadays – but it may not necessarily be to check out a book.

Baby boomers may remember the local library as the place you went to research a high school term paper.

But the library is not just a repository for the written word anymore.

Besides being a place to browse through the latest bestsellers or catch up on current events in newspapers and magazines, it has also become the gateway to more high-tech sources of information.

In his tenure in the St. John Parish Library system, AdministrativeLibrarian Randy Desoto has been an integral part of sweeping changes brought on, in most part, by the arrival of the computer.

The whole world is automated, DeSoto says, and that includes the library.

Four years after his arrival in 1985, DeSoto says, the first computers were used at the patron desk, making patron file updating easier. Thecomputerized checkout system eliminated the need for patrons to sign each book they checked out.

By July of 1996 the library became fully automated, connecting circulation and catalog information by computer from three branches to the mainframe at the main library branch on Airline Highway in LaPlace.

Then, just last year, thanks to a state library grant from the Gates Foundation, personal computers with internet access were added at all branches, including eight new terminals at the main library.

Twenty years ago, as a graduate student in library science at Louisiana State University, DeSoto says the library world was just beginning to get into computers. He says students had access to two or three for-profitdata bases. It was very expensive to download information fromsatellites.

“At that time, we never dreamt of the internet or the worldwide web,” he says.

But what was once the bastion of the bookworm is now the on-ramp to the information superhighway.

Today’s library patrons have free use of computer terminals at the library for an hour at a time to access the worldwide web, e-mail friends and family in distant places, book airline flights or handle their word processing needs.

Local library patrons can also access larger library systems such as the Library of Congress or other national libraries around the world.

Library workers estimate that about 75 patrons use the computer terminals every day, mostly in the afternoons and evenings. Internetclasses for adults are held every Monday at the library.

But DeSoto says that while the computer has opened new worlds of information for patrons, it has not yet replaced the book.

“Many people want to go to the internet for their research work,” he says, “but even though there’s a lot out there, the internet doesn’t yet contain all of the accumulated knowledge of Western civilization.”Once concerned about a national phenomenon of a decrease in book circulation, DeSoto now attributes the drop to the fact that reference books are not checked out as often now. He says in-house use of referencematerials has increased, but patrons now are able to photocopy magazine articles or book pages for a small fee rather than checking them out.

In fact, he says, because of the wide variety of added services now available, more people are using libraries now than ever before.

Despite the arrival of the computer, DeSoto says recreational reading has remained steady over the years with about 12,000 of the library’s more than 100,000 titles being checked out each month.

The biggest change DeSoto has seen in the area of recreational reading is that taste seems to be more sophisticated now. He says patrons are lesslikely to want the formulaic romance novel. Instead, he says, the romancenovel genre has expanded.

Mysteries and detective novels still remain highly popular and are becoming more appealing to men.

Changing lifestyles are also causing an increase in demand for books on audiocassettes. With more people spending less time at home and more onthe road, books on cassette are an ideal choice with many popular titles available.

Because there are now more mothers in the workforce, DeSoto says daytime story hours are not as well attended as they once were, even though the summer reading program for children has remained quite popular over the years. And children’s videos are still checked outregularly, although videos have become less appealing to adult patrons.

In order to provide services to an ever-increasing number of patrons, St.

John Parish has approved the building of a new main library branch on new U.S. Highway 51. The new space will allow for the expansion of thenumber of computer terminals available to patrons as well as increase the amount of space available for groups desiring to use the library facilities as a meeting place.

DeSoto expects the new library to be built by the end of the year 2000.Back to Top

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