MODESTO -- On a clear, crisp Monday morning early this month, a crowd easily of 30 to 40 people had gathered outside the entrance to the main Stanislaus County Library in downtown Modesto, awaiting its 10 a.m. opening.
There were people returning books and, no doubt, checking out more. Parents holding toddlers by the hand, or pushing them in strollers, to go to the downstairs auditorium for WiggleWorms story and activity time. A man with a fistful of DVDs to return. And several folks ready to make a beeline to the Internet-connected computers.
Inside, preparing along with her staff to meet the needs of the library's diverse users, was Librarian Vanessa Czopek. Because even in the digital age, libraries continue to serve a variety of functions.
In a report last month from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, titled "Library Services in the Digital Age," nearly 60 percent of respondents said they had some kind of interaction with a library in the past 12 months, and 91 percent said "public libraries are important to their communities." The vast majority of patrons (73 percent) still visit libraries to browse the shelves and borrow print books. And 77 percent of those surveyed said it is "very important" for libraries to provide access to computers and the Internet.
Czopek began working for Stanislaus County Library in 1996 as branch coordinator and was appointed county librarian in December 2001. She took time to talk about library services and challenges in an e-mail interview with The Bee:
Q: With rapid technological evolution and a difficult local economy, what are some of the biggest challenges you face?
A: Keeping up with technology, and finding the funds for it, in a rapidly changing environment creates a special challenge. New technologies are costly, so it is always a balancing act between embracing the newest technological trend and doing so in the most cost-effective manner. The library always strives to stretch every dollar to provide the maximum benefit to the public.
Q: In November, Forbes.com ran an article that began: "Libraries and big six publishers are at war over eBooks: how much they should cost, how they can be lent and who owns them." How is this "war" affecting our libraries?
A: A number of publishers are limiting the ability of libraries to provide materials in the eBook format. They are inflating their prices or even refusing to sell eBooks to libraries. For example, the eBook version of the cookbook "Barefoot Contessa Foolproof" is priced at $18.99 for consumers, but the cost to libraries is $85. Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," upon which the recent Lincoln film was based, is not even available for purchase by libraries in the eBook format.
Each eBook can be checked out to only one person at a time, just like a hard copy. Public libraries are eager to purchase eBooks on behalf of their customers. Pricing them differently or denying access altogether is an outrageously discriminatory practice.
Q: How does local demand for Internet connectivity and eBook availability compare with what you know is happening statewide or nationwide?
A: On any given day at our 13 libraries in Stanislaus County, there is a line at the door before opening. Many of those customers are there to use public computers. Job hunting, educational support, access to government agencies and finding health information are some of the most common uses.
Our libraries began offering eBooks in September, and it has been incredibly popular with customers. We started with a very small collection and we add to it each week. Checkouts of eBooks have increased steadily each month, from 333 in September to 1,329 in January. Nationwide, 76 percent of public libraries now offer eBooks. In Stanislaus County, we were able to add this new format with seed money from the Stanislaus Library Foundation and Friends of the Library groups.
Q: What's the mission of the Stanislaus County Library?
A: The library's mission is to foster the love of reading and open the door to knowledge. We do this by offering information in various formats, including books, books on tape/CD, large-print books, eBooks, DVDs, magazines and reference materials. We offer programs for children, teens and adults to spur their interest in a variety of topics, which they can learn more about by using library materials. We partner with the Stanislaus Literacy Center to offer the ReadingWorks adult literacy program at our libraries.
Q: A recent Pew Research Center report on libraries states, "Americans are most adamant that libraries should devote resources to services for children," that they should work closely with schools and offer early literacy programs to prepare children for school. How much of this is happening locally?
A: A major part of the library's strategic plan is to provide quality children's services. The Stanislaus County Library has a long history of emphasizing services for children, including early literacy programs. Our library's Summer Reading Program has been in existence for more than 60 years, and children's storytimes date back to the early 1900s. These programs are designed not only to introduce children to books and learning, but to develop specific early literacy skills that are the building blocks for learning to read. There are almost 300,000 children's books available in our libraries for homework support and leisure reading.
Children visit libraries on school field trips, and library staff members visit schools, speaking to classes about the wonders of the library. Libraries work closely with schools to provide materials to support classroom assignments. Library staff members maintain best-book lists and assist children and parents in locating books designated as part of the school-based Accelerated Reader program. The library has become a technological lifeline to children and families in need.
Q: Has the struggling local economy had a silver lining for the library have people gained or regained an appreciation for what's free?
A: People appreciate the services provided by their 13 libraries. Stanislaus County voters have demonstrated their support four times by approving a 1/8-cent sales tax dedicated to their libraries. During these challenging economic times, our libraries are busier than ever. Parents take their children to storytimes, to free special programs and to check out books at the library. School-age children, teens and young adults use the library to get information for homework assignments. Adults do job searches online. They find consumer information and get one-on-one tutoring to improve their literacy.
People can attend free computer classes. They use the free wireless access. They get assistance in using their tablets, smart phones and devices. People of all ages and backgrounds find reading materials for leisure. The library is truly the "people's university."
On the Net: www.stanislauslibrary.org.
Bee City Editor Jeff "Deke" Farrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2327.
AT A GLANCE
Name: Vanessa Czopek
Job: Stanislaus County librarian since 2001, following five years in charge of 12 branches outside Modesto
Other work: Branch and outreach coordinator at Chandler Public Library in Arizona; reference and youth librarian at Mesa Public Library in Arizona; library director for Aztec, N.M.