More and more, the last things on the minds of patrons strolling into Baltimore County's public libraries are books — you know, those quaint, bound collections of paper pages stacked on shelves.
Computer stations and audiobooks were the early library offerings for which no trees were felled. Now, it's e-books and e-readers that patrons want.
The county library system is working to meet the challenge of customers who expect more, who do not want to turn pages, but to click buttons on their Nooks, Kindles, iPads or home computers.
Perhaps no public service provider is evolving as fast as local libraries in meeting changing demand from users.
Nationwide, 76 percent of libraries offered access to e-books — books that can be downloaded digitally in 2012, an increase of 9 percent over the previous year. And, 39 percent of libraries nationally offered e-readers — devices for reading downloaded books — for checkout.
In Baltimore County, the library system now offers access to 67,000 e-books, and the number of e-books checked out last year was nearly triple the number from the year before. The library system this year added Zinio, a distribution service for digital magazines that provides access to about 100 magazines.
And, library staff members can often be found toting iPads, which gives them quick access to the location and availability of specific books or materials.
So far, the library system is not offering e-readers for checkout, as Howard County has begun doing. But that is no doubt coming eventually.
But as libraries evolve digitally, making a physical presence in a building less important to patrons who enjoy reading or do research, it is ironic that libraries are filling up with more and more people. That's because libraries are turning into what County Councilman David Marks called "the hub of the community."
As public space, libraries have become destinations, a "third place" apart from home or workplace. People use libraries as a place to meet, study together, hold special events and even to assist in home schooling. Library programs such as reading sessions for children saw attendance double over the past 10 years.
The county library system should be congratulated for keeping up with the changes in technology, demographics, community needs and more.
Meanwhile, for those who appreciate the unique properties afforded by hefting and reading an actual book, libraries still have those — and probably will for a long time, too.