- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) - In a world where smartphones, iPads, Kindles and Netflix constantly compete for people’s attention, Sioux City Public Library Director Betsy Thompson acknowledges fewer people are walking into the library to check out a book.

“It’s more of a device-driven culture,” Thompson told the Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/1Ofv1qI ). “We get the quick information from our devices and, if we’re traveling, we don’t mind reading a novel digitally.”

The library’s numbers tell the story. At the end of March, library data showed checkouts of print adult fiction and general nonfiction had dropped since last year. And while interest in the library’s e-book, audiobook, DVD and music resources continued to grow, overall checkouts decreased 3.7 percent.

Over the past five years, overall checkouts have dropped nearly 23 percent.

These trends aren’t unique to Sioux City. Iowa libraries as a whole saw a 4.7 percent drop in checkouts from their 2011 to 2014 fiscal years, according to the most recent data available from Iowa Library Services.

Iowa State Librarian Michael Scott said preliminary data from 2015 show overall library checkouts continued to decline 1 to 2 percent last year, even as use of e-books and other downloadable materials continued to rise.

“There’s been sort of a slow decline in overall circulation, but I think it’s changing in the sense of what type of materials people are seeking,” Scott said.

In Sioux City, Thompson said the shift in public interest is driving the library to change the way it uses its funds and assigns its staff. Last year, the library began offering tech consultations, where librarians meet one-on-one with patrons to help them learn to use their digital devices. The library’s staff has also been weeding low-demand items from the print collection while bulking up digital offerings like e-books, downloadable audiobooks and music.

“Since four years ago when we had identified this was happening, we’ve probably taken away maybe a half-dozen shelf units,” Thompson said. “We are putting more dollars into e-books and downloadable stuff than we were five years ago.”

But Thompson said that while checkouts may be decreasing significantly, other important numbers are not.

For example, the library’s recent emphasis on early childhood literacy has attracted many to library events, and children’s books accounted for nearly one-third of the library’s total checkouts last year.

Gate counts - the number of people walking through the library’s doors - are steady from last year. And the number of people accessing the library’s Wi-Fi has risen dramatically, with 15,000 more people logging in than at this time last year.

“Just simply checking things out is no longer the primary measure of what a library does,” Thompson said. “Our slogan, ‘Creating opportunities for a lifetime of learning,’ is still primarily what we do. We just do it differently.”

Scott said on the state level, many libraries are seeing the same thing, causing libraries to shift the way they gauge their success.

“Circulation numbers have been sort of our bread and butter, but libraries offer so many different options beside the physical book,” he said. “It still doesn’t mean they’re not busy places.”

While Sioux City has seen a steep change in number of checkouts, however, some other Siouxland libraries seem to be bucking the trend.

At South Sioux City Public Library, checkouts of print items have been steadily increasing. Library data show the number of materials checked out grew from 43,486 in 2011 to 59,369 in 2014, with checkouts of downloadable materials nearly doubling from 2013 to 2014.

“We’re seeing e-books increasing, but we aren’t seeing the drop in books,” said Library Director Dave Mixdorf. “We’re kind of at a point where we’re really within a thousand checkouts each and every year from the past few years - very consistent.”

At Le Mars Public Library, director Shirley Taylor said she has seen slight increases as well. Last year’s approximately 89,000 checkouts were up more than 10,000 from 2011. Those increases are fueled by more e-book and audiobook checkouts, Taylor said, with print checkouts seeing a small decline.

Though they may not be seeing as radical a decline, Le Mars and South Sioux City’s libraries are also making changes to adapt to today’s digital culture.

Mixdorf said the library has started an online community where readers read e-books and connect with each other online. Mixdorf also said library computer usage is down while more people bring in their own devices to connect to the Wi-Fi. The library also schedules opportunities for staff to answer patrons’ technology questions.

Along with keeping up with the latest e-resources, Taylor pays close attention to the interests of Le Mars area residents, picking print books that she knows will keep coming off the shelves.

“We buy some things that we think round out our collection, but we really look at what circulates — what will they really make the trip in there for?” Taylor said.

And as for print books, Taylor said the decreases don’t mean they’re going away. She and Thompson both cited studies that predict e-books are reaching their saturation point, meaning print books - though more specialized in use than five years ago - are here to stay.

“Amazon has opened a bookstore, (and) Barnes and Noble is scheduling to open some new bookstores,” Taylor said. “To me, that tells me that print books are still a driver, not only for libraries, but there’s money to be had.”

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Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com

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