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Libraries thriving, not dying

SALT LAKE CITY — On a recent Saturday afternoon, two little girls riding pink bikes paused next to Beth Elder as she waited to cross a street near the downtown farmers market. Elder heard something that thrilled her. The girls' mom suggested to their dad that they head over to the library, and the little bicyclists screamed in delight.

Elder knew she was doing something right.

Elder is the director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, a position she has held for the past three years. During that time, she says she has watched community demand for high-quality public library services swell.

The popularity of electronic book readers and the Internet for cheap materials, and the recent news that Borders is closing its doors, have had people predicting the demise of libraries. But ut instead of floundering, libraries continue to find their niche in communities, said Elder.

Rather than surrendering to all the competing factors, libraries have found ways to adjust and innovate by embracing technology that allows people to read online and on handheld devices like the iPad, while also providing free, downloadable reading materials, audiobooks and music.

"The fact that people can use many library resources for free is still a compelling factor," Elder said.

What's perhaps most surprising, considering the oft-predicted demise of the printed words, is that the number of people visiting libraries keeps rising, said Donna Jones Morris, Utah's state librarian of seven and a half years.

From 2008 to 2010, community use of public libraries in Utah went up 52 percent, the number of items borrowed went up 12 percent, and the number of people attending library programs went up 11 percent.

National numbers reflect a similar trend. Today, about 68 percent of Americans have library cards, the highest percentage in 20 years. Library visits have grown 67 percent in the last year alone, which experts attribute at least partially to the sluggish economy, which has made "free" even more valuable.

Sheryl West of South Salt Lake grew up in California and has visited the library since she was a little girl. Her mom would drop West off at the library for storytime, a program where animated library staff read stories to kids.

West, patiently waiting in the children's section of the Salt Lake Main Library while her 6-year-old son played computer games on a recent summer day, said she wants to instill in him a love of the library and reading.

"We actually make an adventure out of it. We take TRAX, find some books — getting them home is the adventure," West said. "He loves coming. He's starting to get that bug."

Libraries have always had to evolve, but now more than ever they are focusing on finding out what communities want and responding to those specific needs.

"Some people come here because spending time in this beautiful architecture … feeds their soul. For others, it's a convenient place to meet," Elder said. "Some come here because of the children, pulling their hand and leading the rest of the family."

Libraries are achieving their goal of reaching a broad demographic because they are keeping up in an increasingly electronic world, she said.

The number of items people download is only 2 percent or 3 percent of the total item circulation in the Salt Lake County Library System, but it's an important service because it targets younger users, said Jim Cooper, director of the Salt Lake County Library System. Library services have always tried to provide the newest, most modern materials to its patrons, from reel-to-reel tapes to vinyl disc records to cassette tapes.

Kelly Richan from Ogden came to the Salt Lake Main Library on Wednesday for a film screening, but also checked out the library's current art exhibit.

To him, a lifelong patron, a library is more than books — it's a gathering place where people can interact and broaden themselves.

"Libraries are much more than a warehouse of books. They are becoming the center of community life. They focus on meeting specific community needs," Morris said. "That's the role libraries are playing, and it's extremely important. They're not just surviving. They're thriving."

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