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Former county library director Mike Wirt on the life and times of the local library

click to enlarge Libraries still, indeed, have books. - JEFF FERGUSON
  • Jeff Ferguson
  • Libraries still, indeed, have books.

Last month, Spokane County Library District Director Mike Wirt announced his retirement after 40 years of service to the district, including 33 as director. The Inlander asked Wirt about the changes he’s seen in the libraries over the course of his career.

The major change, obviously — this is a no-brainer — is automation, computers. When I began, pretty much all we had was books and records — you know, the vinyl discs — and that’s what we had. The big deal, not too long before I started, was whether or not libraries should buy paperback books. But that had already been determined before I got here, so we had paperback books, and what you got was whatever you had in the building at the time, so if you walked into a branch, we didn’t have card catalogues, so you didn’t really even know what we owned. ...

Everything was books. You bought these hugely expensive reference books that nobody could check out, and today, virtually everything that was horrendously expensive is still horrendously expensive. But we subscribe to an online service so everyone wherever you are, in Fairfield or Airway Heights or Deer Park or whatever, has the same access to it. … Computers and the web and all of that has just totally changed the availability of information to people. It has leveled out the playing field geographically. ...

It doesn’t matter where you are, you can have everything that even the bigger libraries have. The other big change that’s really been hard to deal with is the multiplication of formats of materials. So as I said, we had books and paperbacks. Then, books on tape came out on cassette tapes where you have these huge stacks of tapes for one book. Of course, everybody wanted books on tape. Then they came out with CDs, and CDs are easier to deal with than tapes. Then all along, there were large-print books for people with vision problems, and then came along audio books on MP3. Then came along downloadable audio books and then downloadable e-books. And you know what? We’ve got to buy them all. ...

In 2010, more people went into our buildings to use the library then all of the people who attended every event at the Convention Center, at the Performing Arts Center and the Arena, even with the figure skating championships. Every year, I check with the Public Facilities District to get what their total attendance is, to compare with ours, and we have consistently been higher, so obviously, people must think there’s a need for libraries.”

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