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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Libraries in the Internet age have morphed from somber institutions into social hubs for job seekers, small business owners and local residents looking for advice, help or a free meeting place.
The bespectacled librarian has been replaced by a hip, tech-savvy social networker and as books have gone digital, freeing space, cafes have sprung up in libraries, along with rooms for classes, gaming, talks and performances.
"The whole thing about the silent shushing librarian is no longer a reality," said Nader Qaimari, of Cengage Learning, which provides teaching and learning materials to educational institutions and libraries.
"The new librarian has been on Facebook or Twitter longer than you or I have. They're the most socially connected people I've ever met."
With so much information online, librarians have become free guides to learning and are often the first people job seekers turn to if they have no computer at home. During the recession libraries have become centers for career counseling, financial literacy and small business development.
"We're not trying to compete with Google. Google answers more questions in one afternoon than all the public libraries in a year," said Bill Ptacek, director of the King County Library System in Washington state.
"We look at our role as a content provider to our community."
In New York City, public libraries have never been busier. Annual visits exceed 16 million, the highest in a century, according to Ann Thornton, acting director of the New York Public Libraries.
Circulations of print and electronic materials are estimated to reach 27.5 million this year, a spokesman said.
A 2010 study by the nonprofit OCLC Online Computer Library Center found that Americans hit by the recession are 50 percent more likely to visit their library at least weekly and are nearly a third more likely to visit at least once a month.
"Eighty-one percent of economically impacted Americans have a library card compared to 68 percent of Americans who have not been impacted," the report said.
Public libraries are also partnering with schools and have created room so students who need help with homework can work in teams.
"Reading is a social sport," said Brian Kenney, editorial director of the Library Journal, a trade publication for librarians, citing the popularity of library book clubs.
"People want to get together and share what they've read."
The King County Library System, which was named Library of the Year, has an active outreach program, which delivers books to neighborhoods and visits house-bound people.
"Everybody in this community believes that reading is a good thing and the biggest problem is that they don't have time to read," Ptacek said.
His library places books and periodicals in gas stations and waiting rooms where people can squeeze in a few minutes of reading time. It is based on the honor system.
"If they want to take the book home they can. We'll replace them. How bad is that?" he said.
Libraries have also gone online. The busiest time for the New York Public Library for e-materials is after its doors close, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., according to Thornton, who said it had nearly 29 million web visits last year.
As libraries become even more vibrant social hubs, many shopping centers are rooting for branches to be opened nearby so they can get more customers, Ptacek said.
For some libraries the biggest challenge is parking.
"They don't have enough space to accommodate people. Traffic is no longer an issue," said Qaimari.