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A lot of the people visiting the nine locations of the Lake County Public Library System are still reading the print editions of newspapers and magazines, and walking out with borrowed books tucked under their arms, according to Carolyn Strickland, who serves as assistant director of public library services.

But Strickland, as well as other library officials across the Region, has seen the role of libraries broaden into areas that were not even imaginable when she began her career 30 years ago.

"We're trying to have the resources and services that our population wants or needs," she said.

Among the more innovative efforts is the Spark Labs program at the LaPorte County Public Library, which is about as far as you can get from traditional image of a group of silent patrons being shushed by an angry librarian.

The Spark Labs, which are offered at each of the seven locations and in mobile form, provide hands-on learning experiences in the tradition of shop classes or vocational education programs, according to Library Director Fonda Owens.

Instructors guide patrons in areas such as 3D laser printers and scanners, computer programming, electronics and robotics, she said. The 3D laser printers were themselves built as part of the program.

"We use them with all ages," she said of the classes offered by the program.

The effort is part of the wider makerspace effort and dovetails perfectly with a library's role of being a place to learn, Owens said.

"If you just want to know, this is where you can come," she said.

New chapters

Jim Cline, who serves as director of the Porter County Library System, said he has not seen a whole lot of change in the role of libraries in the nearly 25 years he has been on the job or the lifetime he has spent around libraries.

What is changing is the delivery of those services, he said.

Circulation of physical materials, such as books, CDs and DVDs are holding steady, Cline said. But the electronic delivery of these items are way up, he said, citing an 87 percent increase in ebooks over last year as one example.

"You can access those things from home," he said.

While there is still a much larger selection of physical books, Cline said the library is offering top selling titles in electronic form.

Libraries are paying a premium to keep up with the demand for electronic titles, he said. Electronic books cost three to four times the price of the physical product.

Circulation of electronic materials at the LaPorte County Library hit 100,000 for the first time last year, Owens said.

The Lake County Public Library started a program a couple of years ago of providing digital library cards to junior high and high school students throughout the county, Strickland said. She said 41,000 of the cards have been distributed, which enable students to access assorted resources online.

This service comes in particularly handy when a class is reading the same material, she said.

The LaPorte Library has distributed cards to local students and teachers and goes so far as to deliver physical materials to the schools, Owens said.

The Crown Point Community Library is taking a different, but equally as unique approach to community outreach, according to Julie Wendorf, adult programming and outreach librarian.

The library has a booth at the local farmer's market and at other local festivals to move "outside the walls of the library," she said.

Used books are sold and patrons can receive assistance in downloading electronic materials, Wendorf said. Games also are offered for young people, and new mothers are provided with gift bags designed to promote child literacy.

"We really try to reach people not using the library as a personal resource now," she said.

While electronic devices appear to be in the hands of everyone these days, that is not the case, which has left libraries with the role of providing online access to those without, Cline said.

Use of in-house computers was up 14 percent last year at the five Porter County library locations, he said. There was an even larger 25 percent increase in those coming in to libraries to use the Wi-Fi service.

A similar trend is underway in Lake County.

"We have a lot of people who don't have a computer or Wi-Fi," Strickland said.

Another popular role of libraries continues to be the brick and mortar of the buildings themselves.

Before the LaPorte County Library undertook the current $12 million construction and renovation project spread among all its locations, it asked patrons what they wanted, Owens said. One overwhelming response was meeting rooms, she said.

The rooms are popular for tutoring, at-home business people in need of a meeting place, and gatherings of various civic groups, she said.

"We didn't have that capacity in all our locations," she said.

There is also a strong demand for meeting rooms in Porter County, Cline said. They are provided free of charge to the public and nonprofit groups.

"Our meeting rooms are always booked," he said.

Strickland said she does not believe libraries will go the way of bookstores, which have disappeared in large numbers.

"Libraries, I think, are here to stay," she said. "We may change a little bit."

Owens, whose own system is at the forefront of that wave of change, finds comfort in knowing libraries continue to play their traditional roles. 

"Still kind of place where you can come and read the paper," she said.


Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.