Libraries remain relevant in Information Age

Card catalogs, no longer needed with online databases, have been repurposed in many creative ways. In the Munising Public Library, an old card catalog is being used as a seed catalog for Alger County. (Photo by Pam Christensen)

By Pam Christensen, executive director, Superiorland Library Cooperative

One of today’s misconceptions about public libraries is that they are obsolete due to the Internet. Many people do not realize that technology and the Internet have made public libraries even stronger and more versatile. Once library users have a library card, they don’t even need to step foot into their local library for in-person service, they can get a variety of materials by visiting the library remotely. Today, library catalogs and a variety of other services are available online. A smartphone or tablet can be carried almost anywhere, and if Wi-Fi or cellular data are available, there is almost no limit to how the library can be accessed remotely. This means a person has to visit a library in person once to get a library card, and then has access to many free online services from home, work or on the road.

It is true that computers have changed the way people access information. Library users no longer have to spend time flipping cards in a card catalog drawer. In fact, there are a variety of magazine articles showing people how to repurpose old card catalogs. Many public libraries are using their old catalogs as a home for community seed libraries. Other storage ideas abound. Glowing magazine articles tout card catalogs as the perfect place for storing wine, sewing notions, craft supplies, yarn and shoes.

Apps for computers, tablets and phones abound and have been developed to appeal to almost any interest. Just as varied as the applications are the pricing structures to purchase and make use of the app. Before you invest in a service offering access to information, genealogy and family history records or language courses, check with your local public library. Libraries also offer free access to the same digital ebooks and audiobooks, magazines and streaming video that can be purchased from Amazon, Audible and other online subscription services. Library membership not only opens the door to extensive resources, it can save cardholders a lot of money.

Michigan has made an investment in electronic resources for the residents of the state. The Michigan Electronic Library (MeL) located at, provides subscription databases, a shared online public access catalog, free online access to full-text articles from magazines and newspapers, full-text books, digital images and other valuable research tools. MeL is available without charge to any Michigan resident. The MeL databases are available 24/7 and have portals that provide access to curriculum based resources, Michigan history collections, sites for children, teens and adults. MeL portals provide specialized information about business, jobs, government, health and law.

MeL levels the playing field in the information access game for all Michigan residents. The MeL databases are set up to recognize Michigan patrons by their internet address in order to allow seamless access to these valuable online resources. If an Internet address is not recognized or a patron is connecting to the MeL databases from out of state, they may login using their library card or Michigan driver’s license. MeL equalizes access to information across the state. It doesn’t matter how big or well-funded the school, university or public library, access to MeL is guaranteed.

Lisa Cromell of the Munising School Public Library recommends several MeL databases to faculty and students.

“Encyclopedia Britannica School from MeL is heavily used for research papers by our middle and high school classes. Students can access reliable up-to-date information that is organized in an easy to use format. It is an invaluable tool for students. Encyclopedia Britannica has built in citation tools, which is an invaluable tool for students who have so many demands on their time. I especially like the Primary Source links, the Biography exploration tool and the Country Comparison components. There is no need for students to have to wade through information to find reliable sources as Britannica has done that for them.”

Cromell also recommends the Infotrac Student Edition found on MeL for many of the same reasons.

“It makes finding quality articles fast and easy. The ability to find peer-reviewed, full-text articles that can be downloaded, saved, printed or emailed to yourself with a click while researching is fantastic.”

One of the most popular resources available on MeL are the Chilton’s car repair manuals. Car and truck repair manuals for all makes and models from 1940 to the present are featured on MeL. The Chilton’s database includes videos, photos, wiring diagrams, diagnostics, maintenance specifications and recall information. Car and truck repair manuals are expensive and very few libraries can provide a complete collection. Michigan’s economy was built on the automobile industry, so it seems only natural that this resource would be included on MeL. The availability on MeL means the backyard mechanic still has access to the manuals when the local library is closed.

MeL also offers test preparation through Learning Express. This program provides skill builders, work keys and practice tests for writing, reading, math and English for elementary, high school and college levels. Practice tests are available for the GED, ASVAB, SAT, ACT, PSATN-MSQT, TOEIC, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, MAT, citizenship, TOEFL, CLEP and college placement. Entrance exams for nursing and allied health fields are also included. Civil Service tests and practice tests for EMT, air traffic controller, law enforcement, fire fighter, CDL, postal worker, plumbing and real estate can also be accessed through MeL. Students and adults can take multiple tests free of charge. Not only do these practice tests help build testing skills, they also help test takers to gain confidence prior to taking the test.

The MeL Michigana collection is filled with historical information about Michigan history. Historic photographs, diaries, oral histories, local records and Michigan statistics. Heritage Quest online is a featured in the MeL Michigana collection. This genealogy database can be used to research family trees. Heritage Quest contains census information from 1790-1930. Over 22,000 books have been digitized for the collection. Family histories and local community histories are included in the collection as are tax lists, city directories and other helpful genealogy tools.

Shipping helped shape Michigan and the Great Lakes. MeL Michigana contains the records of the Great Lakes Maritime Database, located in the Special Collections Department of the Alpena County Library. This valuable collection has records of over 14,000 ships that sailed the Great Lakes. C. Patrick Labadie’s passion for Great Lakes shipping was the foundation for this exhaustive information about 19th century maritime history. Information from the Detroit Public Library, Bentley Historical Library and other Michigan research institutions is also available from the Michigana collection.

To make MeL available to all Michigan libraries and residents is an investment. MeL costs $4.9 million per year. The Michigan Electronic Library contents are purchased with $3.15 million in federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) funds and $1.75 million from the Library of Michigan and Michigan Department of Education. Despite the hefty price tag, $4.9 million to serve 9.9 million Michigan residents, the price of MeL equates to less than 50 cents per person. Michigan residents, libraries, schools, universities and businesses use MeL multiple times per day at no charge.

14,149,174 MeL user sessions were logged in 2016. The number of searches across MeL was 29,420,861 and 16,848,098 full text items were used. Apple IPad are responsible for approximately 21 percent of the sessions while IPhone usage make up 43 percent of the mobile sessions. Android users recorded 32 percent of the mobile usage. The use of smartphones is growing each year, proving that Michigan residents take their library with them wherever they go.

Just like many other businesses, libraries are taking advantage of technology and mobile devices too. Local libraries keep pace with the demand for digital books and audiobooks by utilizing the services of digital media company Overdrive. Overdrive is one of the earliest vendors of digital downloads. Overdrive converts analog media into digital media that can be used by IOS, Android, Chromebook, Kindle, MacOS, Windows and Window Phone systems. Overdrive currently serves over 30,000 libraries in over 40 countries with digital content.

Members and associate member of the Superiorland Library cooperative make digital materials available on the Great Lakes Digital Libraries site The cooperative serves 40 libraries in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Peninsula. Content is selected by Superiorland Library Cooperative staff and volunteers from member libraries. The collection contains materials for children, teens and adults in fiction and non-fiction.

Jessica Holman, Library Director at the Negaunee Public Library is a proponent of the digital collection. “Overdrive is offered by the vast majority of UP public libraries, and is a constantly growing service. It allows library patrons to download digital audiobooks and ebooks, and streaming video as well. There are thousands of audiobooks and ebooks in the collection, for all ages. I read ebooks on my phone while on lunch break.”

Currently, the most popular titles on the Great Lakes Digital Libraries are Turbo 23 by Janet Evanovich, Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterley, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking, Night School by Lee Child and Chaos by Patricia Cornwell.

“Great Lakes Digital Libraries is our most popular digital resource for library patrons. The database boasts nearly 10,000 digital eBooks and audio books, with a focus on new and popular best sellers. Most recently, GLDL has made streaming video available for our patrons. Users can now checkout new and popular movies and stream them from anywhere with an internet connection. GLDL is quickly becoming a one-stop shop for our patrons digital and entertainment needs,” said Dillon Geshel, library director of the Portage Lake District Library in Houghton, MI.

To borrow materials from the Great Lakes Digital Libraries, an individual must have a library card and pin from one of the participating Superiorland Library Cooperative libraries. An active library card allows each library cardholder to check out a maximum of four items at any one time. Books can be read through the browser or downloaded onto a device after the Overdrive app is downloaded free of charge. There are never any overdue fees or rental charges on digital materials. At the end of the loan period, access to the title simply expires, and if a patron needs more time to complete the book, they can check it out again.

At the end of 2016, the Superiorland Library Cooperative also purchased streaming video as part of the Great Lakes Digital Libraries collection. Many of Superiorland’s member libraries wanted to experiment with downloadable video, and it made sense for the organization to add this format to the Great Lakes Digital Libraries collection—a collection that already has a following and strong use.

Books, audiobooks and streaming video are not the only services available from your local library. Magazines are also available to customers of libraries who participate in Zinio. Zinio offers digital versions of current and back issues of over 100 popular magazines. This service can be used on most computers and mobile devices. Zinio notifies registered participants when the latest edition of their favorite magazine is released, so users never miss an issue. There is no cost to view or download the magazines available from Zinio. Some of the most popular magazines are Country Living, Family Handyman, Newsweek, Taste of Home, Star, Traverse Magazine and Mother Earth News. The collection offers something for almost anyone of any age.

Library customers interested in learning a foreign language or improving their skills can sign-in to Mango. This service provides language courses for English speakers for 71 different languages. It also provides 21 English as a Second Language training units. Finnish, Italian, Japanese, Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, Yiddish, four types of Arabic and Latin American and Castile Spanish are just a few of the languages available. Mango utilizes interactive tools to teach practical conversational skills. Memory building and critical thinking exercises help students to intuitively understand the language.

While some people argue that libraries are unnecessary today because of the internet and technology, others would boast that their library allows them access to resources beyond their wildest imagination. Loyal library users understand that today’s libraries offer valuable services both inside and outside of the library. Taking advantage of the myriad resources of the local library can save time and money whether you visit in person or electronically.

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