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The Public Library's New Role As Community Center

Libraries are no longer just a place to borrow books as the way we consume information changes so does the public library.
© Jorge Royan /, via Wikimedia Commons

Libraries are no longer just a place to borrow books as the way we consume information changes so does the public library.

During the past few years there’s been a sea change in how public libraries do business.

As Ron Heezen begins his second year as executive director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, he’s spearheading the county’s efforts to upgrade its libraries.

Heezen told KNPR's State of Nevada that the free American public library is the most American institution there is: “There’s only one institution that’s as American as the public library. And that’s the public parks systems.”

People are now looking to libraries for things that are lacking in other parts of their lives – such as community.

“We call it, in libraries, ‘the third place.’ The first place is your home. You spend a lot of your life there. The second place is work. The third place, of course, is where people go to connect with others. You can go down to your local Starbucks or even to McDonald’s or any other drive-in and you’ll find people there who want to get together with others and talk about things that interest them. It used to be the town square in the small communities in our past," Heezen said.

Some libraries have brought in coffee franchises. Heezen did that in Nebraska when he was executive director of the Omaha Public Library.  

Heezen said library patrons want a “place that’s convenient, that’s comfortable. And if they’re going to be there all day working on a project, you’re going to need something for refreshment. A lot of our libraries here in Las Vegas have vending machines and little areas where they can eat. But we need to expand that.”

The presence of computers in libraries has become ubiquitous and the role of computers is getting bigger. But Heezen speaks of a “digital divide” that the library system is trying to address.

“That digital divide has actually grown because of the lack of education for people to actually use the technology,” Heezen said. “A lot of people today that use smartphones can’t use Word. They can’t use any of the other Microsoft programs they’d need to learn to get a job. So we provide computer classes to help those people move those skills forward.”

The circulation of print books is changing. “We’ve leveled-out,” says Heezen. “And this is a market where we were growing 10 to 15 percent a year.”

Even so, he thinks that printed matter will still be on the library shelves 20 or 30 years from now.

“There are some people who are kinesthetic. You learn by three different methods,” Heezen said.  “It’s visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. The kinesthetic reader likes the touch. They like the smell. I don’t think [printed material] will be as popular. I think we’ll probably be doing a tenth as much as what we’re doing now.”

As the Las Vegas-Clark County Library system celebrates 50 years of service, and September as Library Card Month, Heezen notes that as of June 30, 2015, an impressive 675,393 people were library card holders in the Las Vegas-Clark County system in a county of about 2 million people.

Executive Director of Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Ron Heezen 

Ron Heezen, Executive Director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.