Library Board Reflection: Do They Still Have Libraries?

by Ray Seidelman, Secretary, WDM Library Board of Trustees

Talking with a friend soon after I was appointed to the West Des Moines Library Board of Trustees in 2019, I expressed how excited I was to serve such a dynamic community institution.  He met my enthusiasm with, “that’s great…but do they still have libraries?”. 

Of course, I picked up on the tongue and cheek nature of his remark.  He was commenting on current digital trends vs an “old world” way of consuming information, and his questions likely resonate with many of our residents.  

“Who actually reads a book in their hands anymore?” 

“Everything is digital.” 

“Who actually goes to a brick and mortar building to check out a book today?” 

Sure, he was being facetious.  But there are many reasons why the library space and services matter as much as the materials it offers.

Do they still have libraries?  Yes!!  The West Des Moines community’s first public library opened in 1934 and in 2021 we are celebrating the library’s 25th year at the current location on Mills Civic Parkway.  This summer, the library cut the ribbon on expansive and impressive renovations that include a new young adult/teen area, more study and conference space, and updated paint, furniture, and carpet. These renovations serve a purpose in creating both more space and more variety in the space offered. Why does this matter? The value of a place where the public is encouraged to learn and gain perspective, alone or in groups, is self-evident.

Who actually goes to a brick and mortar building for books?  Everything is digital.  In the most recent month of data, 30,148 books were checked out from our library with a total circulation of all materials at 76,190.  Nearly 1,000 people enter the library every day.  In a digital context, 14% of the library’s circulation is from digital downloads.  Patrons of the West Des Moines Library have access to download magazines, eBooks, audiobooks, and to stream movies and TV.  There is something for everybody no matter how they want to interact with it.

During the pandemic, I am proud that our library still found ways to serve the citizens at a time when people needed intellectual nourishment the most.   Like many board members, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the library entrance while attendance limitations were in place.  Besides the steady volume, I was impressed by the variety of individuals coming to their library.  Young, old, families, couples, groups, 1 item check outs, 12 item check outs. They spoke different languages and sought different services and opportunities.  Whether they came to read the daily newspaper, use a computer, pick up a held item, or simply re-load the supply of books for the kids, they were all thankful to be in their local library.

Seeing our patrons during this time took me beyond the numbers of circulation and gate count.  It opened my eyes to how an excellent public library helps feed the community’s soul.  Despite technology advances and changes in how people get information, the library still offers a wondrous sense of place.  It is a welcoming home that facilitates anyone’s learning, growth, and discovery.  The possibilities for broadening personal horizons and satiating curiosities are endless. 

The trends driving whether you read that latest novel on your iPad or from printed pages in a book will always change.  However, as I tell friends who see that technology as an existential threat to the library, the demand for connection and community in pursuit of that knowledge doesn’t go away. 

modern library
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Posted on September 20, 2021