reviewcoffee This confession will probably give some of you a heart attack, but I haven’t read any of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I know, I know. It’s like I’ve been living under a rock buried 3 miles below the surface of the Earth. But lately I’ve been thinking about giving the first book a try. So I sent out a half-joking tweet on the subject. To my surprise, I received a personal response from my local library letting me know that Outlander is available for checkout, should I so desire. Now granted, I’m kind of a dork, but I thought this was really cool. So cool, in fact, that I decided to explore more of the digital/virtual features my local library offers, and get the perspective of the Sacramento Public Library’s Digital Services Librarian Megan Wong on the subject of libraries in the digital age.

When I first heard the term “virtual library,” I immediately pictured sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari, but that’s not really what it’s referring to. Wong explains the virtual library concept this way:
“If virtual libraries could have a slogan, it would be, ‘The library doesn’t end here.’ In other words, the library doesn’t end when a customer walks out of our doors. A virtual library is one where a library user never has to step foot into a library. They should be able to get a library card, download audio books, and renew materials all from the comfort of their own home. Of course, physical books will have to be dropped off and picked up from the physical branch. But all other services in a virtual branch should be available online.”

When I scoured the digital offerings at Sacramento Public Library (SPL), I discovered all kinds of goodies, including ebooks and audiobooks available for download, pre-loaded audiobook MP3 players, a mobile website app for cell phone users, and a whole host of other services in addition to the online renew and request service that I’ve been using for a while now. As Megan Wong puts it, SPL’s goal is “to connect to a younger, more mobile generation by fully implementing our ‘virtual branch.’”

Of course, with some new technologies, cost is a major concern. At SPL, for instance, free technology is implemented on a less formal platform, but other technologies require a more thorough vetting process. “Adopting any new technology for an organization as large as ours is never easy. My job is to analyze what technology the library needs and present my case to our administration. Once I assess whether a particular piece of technology is integral to our service model, I present it to our Innovation Task Force committee which is comprised of IT folks, librarians, and some administration heads,” Wong explains. “Times are tough right now, so the library really has to prioritize which technology will produce the most benefit with the least cost.”

Social networking tools are also changing the way libraries interact with their patrons on a more personal level. Libraries across the nation, including SPL, have hooked into the online world via Twitter, Facebook, blogging, online chats, and text messaging. When asked why SPL decided to embrace these social networking tools, Megan Wong explains:
“Our goal for these social networking sites is to create an online space where we can engage with our customers on their turf, so to speak. We also seek to reach out to a new group of library users that may not have ever stepped foot into a library. Basically, we want to be present online in such a manner that potential library users feel comfortable engaging with us, discovering what our library is about, and utilizing our online services.”

Having been a library user all my life and being a bit of a techno geek as well, I’m thrilled to see libraries adopting new technologies. Currently, I spend more time visiting my library’s virtual branch – especially the digital materials section – than I do the brick-and-mortar branch, and I think you just can’t beat the fabulousness of checking out library books from the comfort of your own home. I’m also loving being able to interact with my local librarians via Twitter, where they share movie and book suggestions as well as keep followers updated on new items in the catalog.

What about you? Does your library have a virtual branch, and do you take advantage of it? Which digital/virtual services do you love at your library, or which do you wish they’d offer? Do you interact with your local librarians via social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, or something else? How important do you think it is for libraries to keep up with the latest advances in technology?

– Katie Mack