Commentary: Online world forces reinvention of your local library

I do have a library card.

I used it one time in the past year. For that matter, just once in the past several years.

I spent half a day at the Fort Knox of Arizona libraries, the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building in Phoenix, which is the historical archives and public records division of the Arizona State Library.

I had previously arranged to be there. The archive folks had all the material I wanted to research ready for me. There was a greeter at the front door. He crossed my name off his list and directed me to the third floor. There, a woman gave me a combination lock and made me put my backpack into a locker.

Then I heard the electronic click that allowed me to enter the research room. I was allowed to take a notepad. No pens. They provided pencils. I was also allowed to bring my cell phone into the research room, but I had to turn the ringer off. I used my phone to take photos of some 300 pages of documents. I went through three Arizona State Library pencils scribbling information down to my notepad.

I was there from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. I loved the place. They had physical copies of material I had been trying to get my hands on for years; material that you absolutely cannot find on the Internet.

Outside of State Library employees, I was the only person in the building for the four-plus hours I was there.

Granted, this is a very specialized library, and it does not get nearly the traffic of your normal library.

But with our ever-increasing reliance on the Internet as the bottomless pit for research and electronic media taking the place what we used to hold in our hands, you can't help but wonder if libraries will one day fall victim to the same fate as bookstores and music stores have in America. Will they continue to be vital in this digital age?

Today, Reporter Tom Tracey shows how libraries are trying to stay ahead of the game by continually re-inventing themselves as something other than the community's depository of books. Because libraries are a function of government, they don't have the profit-loss pressure of a retail book or music store. Like public parks and municipal ballfields, they are expected to cost more to operate than the revenue they generate.

Despite that fiscal lifeline from taxpayers, libraries can't ignore what has happened to their retail counterparts. Various sources show that between 12 and 15 percent of retail book stores in America have gone out of business in the past 20 years. USA Today has reported predictions "that shelf space devoted to print books in physical stores will decline by 50 percent during the next five years and 90 percent during the next decade."

When he owned and operated the Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, Joe Neri was relentless in promotion of his store as a community gathering place. Further, he preached long and loud to anyone who would listen about why a brick-and-mortar bookstore was superior to its online counterpart. He was especially adamant that online retailers do not pay their fair share in taxes or give back to a community in any form or fashion.

He was right on both counts.

Today, his bookstore no longer exists.

The same holds true for music and video stores. For those media choices, they were the retail equivalent to your local library. Like bookstores, they are going down like dinosaurs. The legendary Zia Record Exchange store on the corner of University and Mill in Tempe is now a CVS pharmacy. For music lovers, that store was a national monument.

Count me among those who have contributed to the demise of both bookstores and music shops. I'm an e-reader, plowing through two to three books a month on my Kindle. I have some 25,000 music selections in my personal Cloud, of which about 3,000 are in rotation at any given time on my phone.

I'm not alone, various sources show digital book sales have increased by more than 200 percent since 2010 and Amazon now has more than 20 percent of the entire book market in America. Amazon Prime members even have access to a lending library. Free books. Very cool.

As it has been for brick-and-mortar book stores, the online marketplace - which is loaded with free stuff -- is tough competition for your local library.

Locally, Verde Valley libraries still have shelves upon shelves of books. But that's hardly their drawing card. Your local library's biggest appeal today is its access to free WiFi. Libraries still serve as a community gathering place and that's one thing online retailers will never be able to duplicate. Children's programs are a key component to all community library programs, which also trumps the Internet. The Jerome Library even has an inventory of VHS recordings, as well as books written by legendary Verde Valley historian Herbert V. Young. They have a series of Sanborn Maps that date back to 1867.

Providing what the Internet cannot is key to keeping your local library vital in this digital age.

There's one other thing your local library can give you that you can't get on the Internet: a library card.

You never know when you'll need to make a stop at the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building.

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