GLENDALE — Aaron Hall's family has a life full of books, music, expert advice, crafts and other activities for his kids — and it doesn't cost him a dime.
Every Monday or Tuesday, Hall takes his 8-year-old daughter, Jenna, and 10-year-old son, Zachary, to the library.
"For us it is a financial thing," says the divorced father. "Trying to buy my daughter books is insane."
And his daughter has a bibliophile's appetite and the goal to read the most books at her school, Mountain View Elementary in Salt Lake City.
His son Zachary didn't used to enjoy reading, but through the help of librarians, his dad says he has "come alive" and loves books like "Goosebumps" and superhero stories.
But for all the value Hall's family is getting out the library, he is only scratching the surface. As the way people interact with each other in society changes, and as print begins to fade away from its place as the primary way for people to read, libraries are transforming from places where things are stored to places where things are created, changed, learned, shared and dreamed.
'A great leveler'
Stephen Abram is vice president at Gale, Cengage Learning, an educational publishing company for libraries, schools and businesses, based in Farmington Hills, Mich. He also runs "Stephen's Lighthouse," a popular blog in the library sector. He says studies show that having a parent read to a child increases the child's success in school. But books can be an economic barrier for poorer parents.
"The public library is a great leveler," Abram says.
Parents cannot only access free books, but they can have the children participate in programs at the library.
On top of that, Abram says, libraries have homework centers with people to help students.
Education help doesn't just apply to children. Libraries also have programs to assist adults to improve their skills and even learn how to apply for jobs in a post-paper-resume world.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., the library responded to how large employers in town such as the Amazon company had to hire many of their employees from outside the area. The library worked to create programs, Abram says, to help people learn the computer and software skills needed by employers.
Abram also praises Salt Lake City Public Library's writing lab, which can help people develop writing skills and even support them in writing things such as novels.
Books and databases
David Lee King is the digital branch and services manager at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas. He says it is obvious that libraries still care about books. But libraries offer many different programs, services and things to check out that save people money. Even though libraries are tax-supported, he says, "from a customer's point of view, they are free."
And they create an experience people won't get by going to a bookstore. "We have the backlog of books," King says. "Bookstores only have the latest books; we'll have the whole set of novels by an author."
King says people can search for things on Google, but the results could be all over the place. Abram says a library card gives people access to professional, legitimate databases to find the latest verified information about everything from cancer to cars — all accessible in the library or via a home computer. "It is one thing to look up cancer on Google and find information about using peach pits," Abram says. "It is another thing to look through a database on oncology."
Libraries are also a place for using the Internet and computers for people who do not have access to one. People can also bring in their laptop computers and other devices for Internet access through WiFi.
Libraries have business programs loaded on their computers. Some libraries have digital media labs where people can create music, edit videos or create graphics using the latest software.
Bringing in youths
Many libraries have teen rooms with large-screen televisions and video gaming systems such as the Wii or PlayStation. "They can play with their friends and have social interaction," King says.
San Mateo County Library in California has 15 guitars it lends out to youth like books. Back at the library, youths can learn about music and even, Abram says, be directed toward poetry books as sources for possible lyrics. "If you told (a teenage boy) to read poetry, he wouldn't do it," Abram says. "Tell them it is a source for lyrics and they will."
Other libraries have "makerspaces" — multipurpose rooms where staff and community experts help people create and explore things from model airplanes to gardening.
King's library in Kansas holds 7,000 programs and events a year. There are summer reading programs, author lectures and other community events.
Hall loves to take his children to events at the Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County libraries. His daughter attends a girls-only reading club with her grandmother. Hall takes his son to a similar reading club. They read the books and do the crafts and have a blast. "Not only is it educational," Hall says, "it is fun and something they look forward to."
Hall is also a self-confessed political junkie and looks forward to candidate nights at the Salt Lake City Public Library's Main branch.
Saving city money
Abram says libraries may help municipalities trying to save money. As services go online, libraries provide a place where the public can access those services without having to build any new infrastructure.
Ultimately, Abram says libraries are not as much about collections as they are about experiences. Problems come, however, when politicians and the public think about libraries as merely being places where there are old, dusty books that nobody wants to read. Instead, Abram says they should think about how libraries are spread throughout communities and how they have highly trained staff members who can engage with the needs of their particular communities.
"We become facilitators for what the community needs," says Julianne Hancock, Salt Lake City Public Library's manager of communications and library innovation. "Libraries can be used in so many ways."
Hancock says some of their most active users never come into the libraries but access library resources — such as e-books, music, movies and databases — online.
What Hall needs occasionally is leverage to motivate his two children. So he tells them if they do a such-and-such task or chore, they can pick a DVD from the library to watch as a family. The only downside is if they do what he says, this means he has to watch two hours of Scooby-Doo or Hannah Montana.
At least it saves him money, he says.