No app can replace city's need for vibrant libraries

Interesting, these times we live in -- the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore reports a 20 percent increase in visitors through its doors, while Steve Jobs and Apple prepare to roll out the iPad, the computer tablet that allows you to download a book in seconds while you're anywhere within WiFi or 3G range, including your bathroom.

What are we to make of this?

Evidence of the recession and a decision by frugal or forced-to-be-frugal Baltimoreans to hit the good ol' library instead of buying a gadget with an e-book app?

Consumers, already armed with laptops or iPhones (or both), resisting the urge to spend $500 or more on a niche gadget between the two?

Is the positive trend for the Pratt evidence of a yearning in people to get out of the house and away from their computers, and be among others in the quietly inspiring atmosphere of books and knowledge?

Could the increase in walk-ins at the Pratt be evidence of the human need to hold a book in one's hands? Could it represent a desire to view directly -- and not digitally -- old books and collections one can only find at the library?

Should we mention the absence, going on three years now, of homeless panhandlers who used to gather across Cathedral Street at Our Daily Bread?

It's probably a little of all of that.

But if Steve Jobs has seen the future -- as he has seen it so many times before -- then the future is not a library but a digital bookshelf from which one purchases an e-book and reads it on a 9.56-inch by 7.47-inch multi-touch screen.

Those of us who still use libraries and hold books, newspaper and magazines in our ink-stained hands remain cautious and curious about all this, suspicious of the latest gadget (despite its being an Apple product) but excited about the idea of moving through life with so much connection at our fingertips, and in a format larger than a smart phone but smaller than a laptop.

But, as exciting as the iPad is, there's something the Enoch Pratt has going for it that gives it an edge: It's "free."

People still want to walk into a library and borrow.

And yet, there are some people who see the public library as an anachronism. They wonder how its survives with so much information available on the Internet, and books available with a few taps on a touch screen, and Steve Jobs pointing his long, stainless fingers to a paperless future.

Is the iPad the Next Big Thing, a real game-changer?

A librarian from the Midwest tried to answer this question recently.

"Apple could turn this thing into a student's best friend," David Lee King, digital branch and services manager for a county system in Kansas, wrote on his blog. "Instead of carrying a heavy backpack around, students could use the iPad to carry all their textbooks, any multimedia they need, their word processor to write papers, multiple ways to take notes, communicate to classmates and teachers ... And still have their favorite photos, their grand music collection, and a couple of fun games with them, too."

Sounds great. But what's the potential effect for libraries?

"Think Reference Desk and roving reference here," says King. "It's the same price as a netbook laptop. But probably easier to carry around, easier to show stuff to people, easier to make the text larger for people who need larger text. ... And it has a 178-degree viewing angle, so it would work well to show stuff to patrons.

"Game changer? I think so … or maybe I'm just gushing at the cool new toy."

I saw Steve Jobs demonstrate the iBooks feature and I was gushing, too. He's as clever at marketing as he is at creating gadgets.

But he's not going to kill libraries. Not if libraries remain free and keep adapting, as the Pratt in Baltimore has. If you don't get the library's monthly newsletter, you'd be shocked to learn what you are missing in terms of programs, author readings and film screenings.

"People have come to realize that the library is about more than books," says Roswell Encina, the Pratt's director of communications.

Here's some more news to follow my colleague Jacques Kelly's report about the increased foot traffic at the Pratt: Customer visits at the Pratt's three-year-old Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown have more than doubled since last year. At this time in 2009, the branch had logged a little more than 99,000 visits. As of yesterday, the count was 208,000.

There's a great mix of people who use the Southeast branch, from Canton to Patterson Park, including many Latino families with young children. The "Mother Goose on the Loose" interactive nursery rhyme program is very popular, as is the Spanish version, "Buena Brasa, Buena Casa." English-speaking moms and dads bring their children to the Spanish version to expose them to that language, and vice versa.

Mr. Encina is excited about the community that's formed around the new branch; its patrons are already passionate and loyal, he says. In less than three years, it has become one of those great, good gathering places that give a city -- and an old library system -- new spirit and new life.

And not even the genius Steve Jobs has an app for that.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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