libarryIt’s easy to think of a library as an anachronism. Why read a physical encyclopedia when the Encyclopedia Britannica (for papers that need proper sources) and Wikipedia (for everything else) are just a few keystrokes away? Why make the trip to a library to find a book that can be downloaded to almost any device within seconds?

According to new research from Pew, however, libraries are still popular, especially among underprivileged communities. People don’t want libraries to go away, they simply want them to become smarter, to embrace new technologies and move beyond the bookshelf.

People want access to a variety of services, with 37 percent of Americans saying they’d be “very likely” to use an “ask a librarian” scheme. 35 percent say they’re very likely to use digital “petting zoos” that would allow visitors to use new devices. Many of the suggestions, from “Redbox-style” kiosks that would allow people to borrow movies, music, and books from the library without visiting a central location, to an “Amazon-style” recommendation system that would suggest new media based on the member’s previous withdrawals, simply take an existing concept and apply them to the library’s status as a media center.

(Other areas of interest can be seen below.)

Perhaps it’s better to think of libraries as a place dedicated to knowledge, rather than a place where people borrow books. That’s certainly a key aspect of what a library is — 80 percent of Americans are said to consider borrowing books from a library as an important service — but they’re also something more. Libraries have been in the technology business for thousands of years, embracing and preserving knowledge via physical books, and now they’re expected to do the same with other, more modern technologies as well.

Pew says that these functions will be even more important to blacks and hispanics, pegging their likelihood to use the previously mentioned kiosks or digital “petting zoos,” as well as borrowing ebooks, using computers to access the Web, and a number of other activities much higher than their white counterparts. Democratizing access to knowledge and technology is exactly what libraries are about, so this is likely an important function that will offer legitimacy to libraries’ continued existence.

Other institutions may adopt similar strategies in the future. Drexel University recently introduced new 24-hour kiosks that dispense MacBooks for student use, and the college says that it may expand its future offerings to include iPads. The MacBooks are available for five hours, after which a $5 per hour late fee will be applied. Again, this levels the playing field for students, allowing those who can’t afford a laptop — especially now that netbooks are dead — easy access to modern tech.

Drexel is just one of three East Coast universities to introduce the kiosks to its libraries. If the kiosk continues to spread and can be applied outside of colleges — via, say, a unique identifier, like a library card — the tool will allow people who would otherwise be unable to access tech, whether it’s because of their economic situation or because they don’t want to be robbed (no, really, Drexel cites this in its announcement), equal access to their better-off counterparts.

Libraries aren’t the anachronism. If Pew, Drexel, and other universities are correct, they’re actually going to become more valuable as they embrace and distribute new technologies. But the image of a library as a place to simply borrow books is outdated, and the sooner that image is abolished from the public conscious, the better.

[Image courtesy Jessicastjohn]