Say you’re retired in a suburban town. Say you’re a reader. Say you have generational reservations about the digital age and are looking for a welcoming refuge on a winter day.
Your local library beckons.
The digital revolution had an enormous impact on libraries in America, and “we’re still reacting to technology because it’s still changing,” said Lisa Hoffman, an adult services librarian at the Bloomfield, N.J. public library.
Seniors are still drawn primarily to the shelves of actual books, Hoffman said, but many acknowledge the advantages of the totally entrenched digital age. They especially like the large print e-books they can access, and there are audio books and DVDs available, too.
They also need and get extra help from Hoffman, who’s been at the library for 11 years and has a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University.
“I have a fan club,” she said. Some of the library’s patrons have grandchildren who give them their discarded computers but don’t have the time or inclination to teach their digitally challenged elders how to use them. So the seniors bring their tablets in and Hoffman becomes their guide to the wonders of technology.
Since last May, though, the library’s main service to seniors has been home delivery of books. Every Wednesday morning, a driver delivers books – no more than four to a customer – to 15-20 home-bound readers, mostly in senior housing complexes. Some want large print books, some want mysteries, some want biographies. And one elderly patron asked for mysteries in which no one gets murdered. A tall order the librarians have tried to fill.
There’s also a free movie night at the library and book clubs and a cooking club for seniors.
The library doesn’t have a demographic breakdown of its customers, but Hoffman’s impression after more than a decade is that the number of seniors using the library has held steady. “They come here until they can’t,” she said. And sometimes an elderly patron doesn’t show up for a while and there’s no explanation until a library employee spots a newspaper death notice. “Nobody tells the library when they’re gone,” Hoffman said.
And no one, apparently, thinks the unthinkable: What if physical books were gone from libraries? Hoffman broached that notion off-handedly, then quickly dismissed it. “There’s no reason to switch to all-digital,” she said. “For one thing, you’d have to get rid of the building.”
Ellen Sheldon’s reaction to the idea of a library without physical books: “That would be horrendous!” Sheldon, 67, has been a patron of the Bloomfield library for 35 years and a volunteer book shelver for three weeks. A voracious reader, she devours two or three books a week and especially likes “non-fiction on a subject I don’t know much about.” She also reads biographies, including Michelle Obama’s, which was popular at the library.
Sheldon, a retired sales manager for an electronics company, said that, “I have a Kindle, but there’s nothing like reading a book. Nothing at all. A Kindle is just not the same as reading a book.”
She loves spending time at the library, “surrounded by other people with the same love of reading.” She picks out a few books from the shelves down and sits down and starts reading. “It’s so comfortable,” she said. “The library’s a place where you feel at home.”