With electronic readers and online retailers like Amazon pushing independent booksellers and even Borders to the edge of extinction, you might be tempted to assume libraries are also dinosaurs about to die.
If so, consider the opening of the East Valley's newest library.
Its director anticipated the tiny branch tucked in a Mesa strip mall would draw 300 patrons a week, only to discover the projections were way off.
In the first 11 days, 2,178 visitors passed through the library's doors. More than 300 visited on one day alone.
This response is despite a threadbare budget that means the library doesn't have a permanent sign outside. The Mesa Express Library is staffed with just two librarians and a small collection of new and recent popular titles.
This minimalist library could prove a model for more small locations around the city to meet the changing needs of those who use libraries, director Heather Wolf said. She anticipates fewer big main libraries in the future.
"What we're seeing in the library world is people want access to information and they want access to technology. Those are the things we concentrated one when we did the express library," Wolf said. "If it does prove to be successful, I could see more of these located around Mesa."
The express library concept was mostly the result of Mesa not having much money for a temporary library in the city's southeast section. Mesa plans to open a 35,000 square-foot branch in several years, but saw demand for a smaller operation now.
The 3,400-square-foot branch offers about 12,000 popular books, DVDs, audio books, 10 computers but no magazines or reference materials. The library cost $377,000 to open, with $125,000 going to materials, furniture and computers. The $60,000 annual operating cost will be paid through the sale of old library books.
The branch has attracted nearby patrons who haven't gone to a library in years because of gas prices or the distance to other locations, branch manager Lanty Snelson said. And the surge of unemployed people attracts people who want a good book to occupy their mind or to search for work after cutting off their home Internet access to save money.
Snelson has worked for the Mesa library 29 years and said people accustomed to much larger offerings haven't been disappointed. Snelson said he and the branch's other librarian can have materials shipped from other branches and offer the same services as a larger library.
"In all the time we've worked in libraries, we've never had so many people thank us for being here," Snelson said.
Changes in the publishing world or in technology over the years have caused people to predict the death of libraries before, said Nancy Ledeboer, president of the Arizona Library Association. The introduction of inexpensive paperbacks was once seen as a threat, she said. But libraries have adapted to community needs over time whether by adding computers or modifying the buildings to allow for more classes and gatherings.
More people are using libraries to access the Internet between meetings, to meet business contacts if they have a home office or for job searches, Ledeboer said. They have an increasing role in adult education, too.
"There will always be a place for libraries because we will be providing added value around the content," Ledeboer said. "I think it's a mistake to think of a warehouse for books. Really we are a community gathering center and learning place."
She also sees demand growing for small locations, especially in dense urban areas. She points to the San Francisco Bay area, where patrons at transit stations can get materials from kiosks similar to DVD rental machines in grocery stores.
Librarians are uncertain what the future holds for printed materials, she said. But already patrons are turning to the library for their e-book downloads, Ledeboer said.
"I think that libraries will exist long beyond a book," she said. "Whether you're reading it in print, listening to it on a CD in your car or downloading it on your Nook, people come to libraries because they trust that we're not here to make a buck."