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Going digital, River Falls library morphs into the unknown

River Falls Library Director Nancy Miller says making sure the local library stays relevant in the digital world means constantly reinventing what was a more or less traditional model. As for talk of becoming a paperless society, Miller jokes that her desk would seem to show otherwise.

Library Director Nancy Miller can reflect on more than three decades to see the technological effects on her profession.

“I started when we were still hand stamping due-date cards and we had LP record albums,” said Miller, who became a fulltime librarian in 1983, director of New Richmond’s library in 1998, then director at River Falls in 2001.

River Falls library’s first computer in 1995 was an Apple P.C. It was used for a slow, shaky access to the newly established public Internet.

“It had a dial-up modem that took several minutes just to make a noisy connection,” Miller said. “Back then, we also did interlibrary loan requests using microfiche.”

The city’s old library – more of a long, narrow room on East Elm Street, now part of the police station -- was too small for programs.

“We had a few preschool storytime programs held in the (old) City Council chambers,” Miller said. “The kids glitter bombed it one time when we were doing a 4th of July craft, and I vacuumed for an hour trying to clean it up. The (council chamber) carpet sparkled for weeks afterward.”

The present two-level public library on North Main and Union streets brought breathing space to house a larger materials collection and for greatly expanded programming.

But in the digital world of 2014, with bookstores closing, what is the future of libraries?

Complicated question. Miller admits she doesn’t know.

“I have no idea,” she says. “I used to worry about it a lot, thinking, ‘What should I be doing?’ and going to meetings and conferences with other librarians who were looking for a magic pill to tell us all what’s coming.”

Miller says the ‘magic pill’ never materialized. One presenter even told the audience: “Who knows? None of us are mind readers, and the technology is moving too fast to try and guess.”

For Miller, hearing that “was actually quite a relief.”

It hasn’t been a relief to all library directors.

“There are articles about librarians cutting their own throats by trying to push e-content because they think that is what people want,” she said. “A webinar I listened to recently said that e-book sales peaked in 2010.”

Miller said that doesn’t mean e-books are going away. More likely, they’ve found a niche with readers – side by side with a niche for print books.

“People still like printed books,” Miller said. “A Kindle is great on an airplane, but curled up on the couch? Not so much.”

Even without a magic pill, Miller is determined to keep the River Falls Public Library relevant for the 21st century.

With bookstores like Borders going under, it’s no surprise that circulation at the local library has dropped the past three years.

That figure peaked at around 400,000, while dropping to just under 350,000 in 2013.

But the downward slope isn’t all gloom and doom. Miller said library e-content downloads increased by roughly 16,000 last year -- about the same number that circulation of print and other library materials decreased.

And while circulation declined, visits to the library went up from 178,000 in 2012 to 190,000 in 2013. Included in that total – 147 school visits with students.

“People like it here,” Miller said. “It’s our community center, a place you come in and hang out.”

The range of visitors varies – moms coming together with their preschoolers and seniors who come regularly to read the papers, sit back and chat. Some bring coffee -- which is OK with a lid.

How the library is used is evolving. Miller said the computer lab, while still busy at times, is less used.

“Instead you have more people who come here with their own laptop, iPad or smartphone,” she said. “We have WiFi here to connect with the Internet, so that’s a great service our patrons can enjoy.”

Hanging out at the library is more than sitting on scattered chairs or at tables. Miller said the library’s three study rooms are constantly packed.

On a more formal basis, the library booked 800 meetings last year in its three larger spaces on both floors – board room, meeting room and conference room. The space, when available, is always free.

On the lower level gallery, there’s a rotating series of speakers, exhibits and displays. Topics include the Civil War, model railroads, vintage motorcycles, wedding dresses, quilts, community and school art, authors and much more.

These draw hundreds each month to the library, adding to its relevance as a community destination point.

Miller has noticed one visible change to the habits of library patrons.

“There is less browsing of the book shelves,” she said. “People are more apt to have selected something they want, requested it online, got an email notice that it’s in, and then come in to check it out and leave.

“Often they don’t look further, to browse around casually, so they aren’t finding that hidden gem on the shelves.”

For the complete story, please see the Feb. 27 print edition of the River Falls Journal.