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At one Newport Beach, Calif., library, stacks of books like these may go the way of the dodo bird and the 8-track tape. Could it be the start of a trend?
By
TODAY contributor
updated 3/30/2011 3:58:22 PM ET 2011-03-30T19:58:22

The library is as much a repository for books as it is a gathering place.

But one California city — faced with crushing budget problems and the changing habits of library patrons — may be getting ready to turn the page on all of that.

Newport Beach is mulling a plan to strip its original library, the Balboa Branch, of many if not all of 35,000 books DVDs and stacks of research material. The 50-year-old library would become a kind of de facto community center — a place where citizens could gather, chat without fear of being shushed by a stern librarian, and surf the web.

But if they really wanted a book, they could still get one: All they’d have to do is march up to a voice-activated electronic kiosk; speak with a librarian at one of the city’s three other branches; order it, a la Netflix; and wait by the library’s traditional fireplace for it to be dropped off at a locker on site, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Books a la Netflix
The plan is not yet carved in stone, said Cynthia Cowell, library services director for the Newport Beach Public Library, and it is part of an overall strategy under consideration to move the branch out of its old digs and into spanking new 2,200-square foot quarters in the proposed Marina Park project. “It’s a project that’s still very much on the drawing board,” Cowell said.

Though the move itself seems all but certain, neither library officials nor the city council have firmly decided what shape the branch will take in its new location, Cowell said. One model under consideration calls for a stripped-down version of library, stocked with “very popular material for adults and children,” and still equipped with time-honored library amenities like a story hour room. But the model that has attracted the most attention is the one that would refine the essence of a library, turning it into a room with a fireplace, Internet access, and an electronic ordering station for those who still crave the tactile sensations that only a book can provide.

“We did look at the electronic version and we still have not ruled that out,” Cowell said. But even if that model is the one chosen, “we will most likely have print materials in that library,” she added.

Newport Beach is not the first cash-strapped library system to look for a way to cast off tradition in favor of a more technological approach to literacy. Some are simply jettisoning the complicated and mysterious Dewey Decimal System of classifying books. So now, travel books and foreign dictionaries, which would have been kept a ship’s length apart under the Dewey system, can now be grouped together under the general heading of travel, under the new regime.

At other libraries, changes have been more dramatic. Stanford University recently unveiled a new trimmed-down version of its Engineering Library with about 20,000 hard copies, a quarter of the collection the old library had. And at the University of Texas at San Antonio, students no longer risk getting lost among the vast stacks of dusty old tomes but can instead sit in open “study group niches” and electronically summon material from the library’s virtual collection of 425,000 e-books, and 18,000 e-journals.

But it isn’t just technological advancements and changing tastes that are driving the plan to revamp Newport Beach’s library system: Economics also plays a role. Faced with a crippling budget crisis, California Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a $15 million cut in state funds for libraries and literacy programs.

Nobody with a book
City officials say they did study the habits of their library patrons before developing the proposal and found that, by and large, the proposed arrangement reflects those habits. The LA Times also conducted a less far reaching and unscientific study.

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“On a recent afternoon at the Balboa branch library … most of the patrons worked on desktop computers or browsed the DVD collection,” the newspaper reported. “One person slipped into the stacks — but only to make a cellphone call in private.”

But while the residents of Newport Beach may be waiting to see if the writing is on the wall for their library, at other book nooks old-fashioned bookworms may not be willing to give up without a fight.

Last month in England, where 350 public libraries are set to close as a result of steep budget cuts, a group of famous British authors, including Mark Haddon and Phillip Pullman, led “save the libraries” rallies at dozens of cities. The move, Pullman warned, “will gradually make us a less informed, less intelligent, less aware, less useful, less imaginative, less kindly people than we might have been."

So far, the reaction in Newport Beach has been less vocal. “Of course there has been a reaction to this. You have to understand that the Balboa Branch library has been open on that spot for 50 years,” Cowell said. “But times are changing, and they are tough, and in Newport Beach, just as in the rest of the nation and the world, libraries everywhere are trying to figure out how to keep facilities open or keep some means of service available in these times of leaner budgets.”

But officials in Newport Beach and elsewhere should be warned that technology has its limits and should be careful when tinkering with the time honored structure of the nation’s public libraries, says Molly Raphael, the president elect of the American Library Association.

“I think that libraries are trying to be as innovative as they can and to respond to the needs of the communities,” Raphael said. “Automation such as the kind you’re talking about has been very helpful for the kinds of things that don’t need much in the way of staff intervention.”

Still, she said, no electronic device can replace access to the knowledge and expertise of local librarians.

“Very clearly,” she said, “the human touch is a very important part of what libraries are and must be in the future.”

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