It wasn't that long ago that prognosticators called libraries a dying breed.
You only went there to check out books or to research a school assignment, they said. Computers and e-books would render those things unnecessary.
It turns out the forecasters were wrong.
Personal computers did become a reality; so did electronic books. But the truth is, these days libraries actually are seeing usage and number of visits go up.
Libraries have remade themselves to become community hubs, which means they have come back to one of their first functions, said Gary Wasdin, executive director of the Omaha Public Library.
“In the big picture, nothing has changed,” Wasdin said. “Being the center of the community is part of their original purpose.”
To maintain and expand that function today, libraries are not turning their backs on technology, but rather they have embraced it.
Lending books or DVDs is still important. How the public does it has changed. People can get on their computers and check out books online, or they can download an e-book.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, most Americans believe libraries are important parts of their communities and they do a good job at keeping up with technology.
Ninety-four percent of respondents said libraries provide opportunities and resources, and promote literacy.
To see the wide range of activities libraries are offering, just take a look at the schedules on their websites. Mixed in with the typical book clubs and story times are such things as computer or citizenship classes, yoga and exercise classes, testing for sexually transmitted disease, informational workshops on health insurance, community group meetings, Scrabble and Lego groups, craft-making sessions, cooking classes, movie nights, family activities ... and the list goes on.
And if you think young people ignore the library, Kathy Reiger, director of the Council Bluffs Public Library, will tell you otherwise. A decade ago kids, especially teenagers, ignored the library, she says. She says they come in often now and make use of what the library offers.
That's not an accident. The Teen Central space at the Council Bluffs Library was created just for them. No one younger or older is allowed in.
“It provides a place for them to hang out, to socialize,” Reiger said.
“There are few places (in Council Bluffs) for social interaction,” said Ben Johnson, a support services employee at the Council Bluffs Public Library. “The library fills a physical void.”
Teen Central has computers, gaming systems, a vending machine, comfy chairs and books geared to the young adult reader.
Other parts of the library also see increased usage, Johnson said. “Tutoring is big here.”
The library also provides a meeting place for adult groups and a place for business professionals to bring clients, he said.
Robin Clark, director of Sump Memorial Library in Papillion, has noticed the same thing: People look at the library as a central meeting place in the community.
“We try to make it a more welcoming place,” she said. The library is constantly upgrading its services, she said, and now has such offerings as classes and story times for people with special needs. She said there are between 14,000 and 17,000 visits to the library each month, according the door counter.
The biggest change she has seen in 10 years, Clark said, is how the library has expanded outside its walls.
“Libraries have taken on a greater role as community servant,” she said. “We work really, really hard. We're not just a keeper of books.”
She said library employees also make sure they are getting the word out. “We want people to know what all we have.”
It's working. A recent superhero party, for example, drew 110 children.
Computers and the computer lab also are a big draw. “Not everyone has a computer at home, or maybe they don't have the Internet, so they come here,” Clark said.
Wasdin said e-books have rapidly been adopted, but physical books are still the Omaha libraries' biggest draw. Right after that come health and fitness classes and the myriad other programs available at Omaha's 12 branches.
“Technology gets too much attention,” Wasdin said. The library is a community center for so many things. “We have four times the programs we had a few years ago, and genealogy has really taken off.”
Early childhood reading and education are becoming increasingly important, he said.
“It used to be when kids started school that they learned to read,” he said. “Now we start earlier, zero to 3 years old. We are uniquely positioned to serve that audience.
“The kids hear thousands of words. What those little sponges take in is amazing.”