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Patrons may not know how to fully use the library's resources. This can be due to some individuals' unease in approaching a staff member. Ways in which a library's content is displayed or accessed may have the most impact on use. An antiquated or clumsy search system, or staff unwilling or untrained to engage their patrons, will limit a library's usefulness. In the public libraries of the United States, beginning in the 19th century, these problems drove the emergence of the library instruction movement, which advocated library user education. One of the early leaders was John Cotton Dana. The basic form of library instruction is sometimes known as information literacy.
Libraries should inform their users of what materials are available in their collections and how to access that information. Before the computer age, this was accomplished by the card catalogue — a cabinet (or multiple cabinets) containing many drawers filled with index cards that identified books and other materials. In a large library, the card catalogue often filled a large room. The emergence of the Internet, however, has led to the adoption of electronic catalogue databases (often referred to as "webcats" or as online public access catalogues, OPACs), which allow users to search the library's holdings from any location with Internet access. This style of catalogue maintenance is compatible with new types of libraries, such as digital libraries and distributed libraries, as well as older libraries that have been retrofitted. Electronic catalogue databases are criticized by some who believe that the old card catalogue system was both easier to navigate and allowed retention of information, by writing directly on the cards, that is lost in the electronic systems. This argument is analogous to the debate over paper books and e-books. While libraries have been accused of precipitously throwing out valuable information in card catalogues, most modern ones have nonetheless made the move to electronic catalogue databases. Large libraries may be scattered within multiple buildings across a town, each having multiple floors, with multiple rooms housing the resources across a series of shelves. Once a user has located a resource within the catalogue, they must then use navigational guidance to retrieve the resource physically; a process that may be assisted through signage, maps, GPS systems or RFID tagging.
Finland has the highest number of registered book borrowers per capita in the world. Over half of Finland's population are registered borrowers. In the U.S., public library users have borrowed on average roughly 15 books per user per year from 1856 to 1978. From 1978 to 2004, book circulation per user declined approximately 50%. The growth of audiovisuals circulation, estimated at 25% of total circulation in 2004, accounts for about half of this decline.
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