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Libraries move with times, discover niches

Leon Shaw, 15, of Boston competed with friends during a Dance Dance Revolution Tournament at the Boston Public Library on Friday. Leon Shaw, 15, of Boston competed with friends during a Dance Dance Revolution Tournament at the Boston Public Library on Friday. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)

At the Boston Public Library each month, teenagers get down to the vigorous techno thumps of the popular arcade game Dance Dance Revolution. The Norwell Public Library treats visitors to a monthly free dinner and a movie.

Borrowers in Andover take out portable, digital audio books so tiny that they can jog through the park or shop at the mall while listening to Dan Brown's bestseller "The Da Vinci Code."

And in Palmer, young patrons jostle for their turn to play Guitar Hero II, a video game that has replaced the more traditional karaoke nights in some bars.

"We are not your grandmother's library," said Kimberly Lynn, president of the Massachusetts Library Association. In the era of waning readership and Internet search engines, libraries in Massachusetts and across the country are shifting their resources and expertise to areas once unthinkable. Gone are the hushed bibliothecae of yore where even an occasional irreverent clicking of a heel prompted furrowed brows of disapproval.

The modern-day library, Lynn said, is a community living room-cum-reference clearinghouse, with some digital gaming sprinkled in.

"It's a zoo," Lynn said. "It's chaotic. It's not getting quieter."

Library circulation in Massachusetts grew by a million copies between fiscal years 2005 and 2006, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. But the growth is not necessarily because people are borrowing more books.

One in four American adults read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released in August.

Instead, public libraries are finding new niches that make them appealing to patrons, and patrons are increasingly using libraries as a free alternative to DVD rentals, music stores, Internet cafés, and even gaming arcades.

At the Forbes Library in Northampton, the circulation of books has remained unchanged during the last eight years, while the circulation of videos - both on DVD and on cassette - has increased by more than 36 times, from 2,052 in 1999 to 75,481 in fiscal year 2007, said Janet Moulding, the library director.

The Forbes Library has also increased its video collection by almost 50 times in eight years, from 120 to 5,969, she said.

"People are realizing how much money they can save their family, not going to a video rental store or even buying DVDs but instead renting them for a week for free," said Katie Krol, the video librarian at the library.

Krol, who used to work in a different section of the library, was hired two years ago to supervise the ballooning video section.

The Norwell Public Library went a step further last spring, launching a program that offers patrons a monthly viewing of an independent film and a light dinner for free. The menu varies, and guests are encouraged to bring their own desserts. The library has also held programs during which specialists brought in live owls and reptiles, encouraging visitors to learn about the animals and pet them.

Library officials do not have to look far to see what happens when towns decide their services have become irrelevant. Last summer, libraries in Saugus and Bridgewater, which had relied mostly on books, were on the verge of being shut down and were forced to reduce their hours.

"Libraries have to move with the times," said Dinah L. O'Brien, director of the Plymouth Public Library.

Audio and video materials accounted for more than one-third of last year's circulation in Plymouth, where many patrons borrow audio books to listen to during daily commutes to Boston.

"What better way to spend the time," said Don Conrad, 48, a Plymouth printer who works in Boston.

Officials at the Memorial Hall Library in Andover reported a similar distribution of circulation last year.

In addition to books on tape and on CD the library allows patrons to download books online and offers playaways, portable digital devices approximately the size of a pack of gum that carry audio recordings of books. Playaways are very popular with suburban patrons, said director Jim Sutton.

Once, libraries considered promoting literacy as their main role. Today, some librarians are stretching the definition of reading. "We consider listening to the audio books reading," said Lynn.

Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, agreed: "People are still what we call reading but in many different formats."

As part of its summer reading program, the Boston Public Library purchased several Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero consoles.

The library held Dance Dance Revolution tournaments in its branches over the summer, and continues to offer that video game and Guitar Hero to teenagers once a month at the central branch.

"It's cool that we have activities other than reading books at the library now," said Leon Shaw, 15, panting after a particularly difficult Dance Dance Revolution pirouette in one of the library's basement rooms last week. "More libraries should do this."

Diana Preusser, who works with teenagers at the library, has ordered several other gaming consoles, including Nintendo Wii , which allows users to simulate playing sports.

Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero II are hits with teenagers at the Palmer Public Library, where librarians at the young adults section set up the consoles every Tuesday for at least one hour, said Krista Navin, a librarian in the young adults section.

"We're not only trying to meet the [patrons'] reading needs but we also want to meet their social and recreational needs," said Preusser. "This is where libraries are going."

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