Linda Gustafson of Kennewick loves to read. She also prefers to hold a book or magazine in her hands rather than use an e-reader such as a Kindle, Nook or tablet.
“I like to turn the pages. I like being able to close a book when I’m finished,” she said.
Library officials say the speed and capacity of a library’s internet service rather than the number of books it has on its shelves are becoming the driving forces behind Mid-Columbia Libraries sooner rather than later.
Visits to the library district’s 12 branches are down to 897,000 this year on the year, a 21 percent decline compared to 2013.
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It’s clear how people use libraries is changing because how they read is changing, as evidenced by Gustafson’s 6-year-old grandson, Liam.
“I was reading to him and he stopped me and said, ‘Grandma, can you pause it so I can go to the bathroom?’ ” Gustafson said. “It just struck me. That’s his experience.”
Liam has his own tablet computer he reads, but he also watches videos and plays games on it too.
The library district’s circulation of digital materials such as e-books and music downloads, while still far below library visits at 274,000 in 2014, is skyrocketing. Those materials are being checked out by patrons more than four times what they were in 2011.
Library officials said the shift in reading habits and library use doesn’t mean branches are poised for closure, or plans to potentially open a branch in west Kennewick are off the table. However, it does mean the library will have to rethink its role in the community and what kind of materials — books or digital files — it brings into its collections.
“You don’t have to enter a library at all to access a library,” Executive Director Kyle Cox told the Herald.
The library district opened its new west Pasco branch off of Road 68 just a little over a year ago. So many people were using the new branch, which offers a drive-thru drop-off and pick-up window, it became the second most-used branch in the system.
Other branches beat their circulation goals in 2013, including the Merrill’s Corner branch in Eltopia, which was shut down for a few months in 2011.
Several branches are undergoing renovations or will soon in the coming months to make them more useful to patrons. And while firm plans aren’t finalized, library officials said they saw a west Kennewick branch as a logical next step to reach the growing population in that area.
Digital materials, though, are clearly becoming more important. Everything from standard fiction and non-fiction, children’s picture books and magazines are available through Mid-Columbia Libraries’ subscriptions to various streaming services.
E-book loans, in particular, have grown exponentially, Cox said, and people can log into the library district’s website anywhere to borrow an item and read on their Kindle, iPad or other tablet computer or e-reader.
Mid-Columbia Libraries branches aren’t the only libraries experiencing a shift in how people read and get information.
A study from The American Library Association found that school libraries spending hundreds less on augmenting their book collections in 2013, partially because that money was going toward purchasing access to digital databases and similar resources.
The influx of digital materials has its benefits, said Carmen Schaben, assistant manager at the Union Street branch, such as providing patrons access to more titles. It’s also easier to haul 10 e-books on an e-reader than 10 hardcover books in a bag. But Schaben has noticed people visiting the branch less frequently as they go digital.
“It’s kind of sad (that) it takes them renewing a card to get them in here,” she said.
Future libraries likely will mean smaller physical collections and smaller buildings, library officials said. West Pasco is a relatively small branch compared to other similarly busy branches in the Tri-Cities. A future west Kennewick branch could be based on a similar model.
“People are using the libraries, but they’re using them in different ways,” Cox said.
But physical libraries still will be needed, Cox said, noting that demand for library programs such as children’s story times and seasonal reading programs are attracting more interest each year.
Sherrol Pentland of Kennewick has a Kindle that she likes to use when camping or riding in a car as her husband drives. But she still prefers holding a physical book, and she and her four children visit the Union Street branch regularly. While she seeks out a quiet place to read, perhaps by the branch’s fireplace, they use the computers or meet up with friends from school.
“I’d hate to see libraries go all digital,” Pentland said.
Library officials said that is something a simple internet search for information or checking out an e-book don’t provide: a human connection.
“The library is also about book culture,” Schaben said. “It is about place more than anything.”
Gustafson is betting on the continued need for printed materials as she checks out several books a month and relies on the library’s magazine subscriptions so she doesn’t have to purchase them herself.
Her children have offered to buy her an e-reader in the past and she dismissed the idea, saying it would “just be another thing to carry around.”
“I’m not going to say never,” she said. “But I probably won’t be standing in line for one.”