We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The boy on the bicycle flashes a big grin as he rides into the atrium of the Mount Pleasant Library. His father collects the bike and carries it upstairs as the child climbs the steep steps, and the two of them enter the main room on the second floor, joining a group of nervous 4-year-olds reading books to an audience of dogs.

They’re pretty much the only ones reading. On the ground floor, all 22 functional computers are in use, with librarygoers playing games and checking their email and Facebook accounts. A grizzled man slumped in an armchair sips a can of coconut water. Two people are on their laptops, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. The basement meeting room is occupied by four conferees; next door, a teenage girl is huddled over a notebook in a study room. There’s a woman at the checkout counter, but she’s borrowing a DVD.

Welcome to the modern-day D.C. Public Library system, where computers and community gatherings increasingly trump books. Since the mid-1990s, hand-wringing about the future of libraries in the digital age has led cities around the world to replace their utilitarian central libraries with sleeker, more welcoming gathering places. The District may have missed out on this trend—-the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is no one’s idea of an inviting aesthetic gem, except perhaps to disciples of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—-but the city’s branch libraries are nearing conclusion of a massive and expensive overhaul that has already seen the construction or renovation of 14 libraries, with three more to come. Several are designed by big-name modernist architects, and most bear price tags of more than $15 million. (City officials have begun exploring ways to modernize MLK Library, too.)

At the same time, the official number of books in the library system has declined from 3,037,696 volumes in 2007 to 1,466,010 in 2012, raising the question of what function, exactly, these bigger, fancier libraries serve.

It bears noting that the District probably doesn’t actually have fewer than half the books it had five years ago. DCPL Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper points out that better accounting has removed books from the ledger that weren’t really there—-for instance, those destroyed in the Georgetown Neighborhood Library fire of 2007, when a triage effort led the rare books of the Peabody Room to be salvaged while the entire circulating collection went up in flames. About 70 percent of the 1.6 million books no longer in the system probably hadn’t really been there for a while, which the accounting improvements made clear. The system also ditched some reference books for which it has less demand, like encyclopedias. (Some of the discarded books are sold to a used book service while the rest are recycled.) Nonetheless, the trend is clear: Digital circulation, which accounted for just 1 percent of total circulation in 2008, the first year it was tracked, was up to 8 percent, or 255,591 transactions, by 2012. Downloads of e-books and other digital media—-which don’t require patrons to set foot in a physical library—-more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, from 102,761 to 255,591. So then why have the city’s libraries become larger, pricier, and more numerous than ever?

It’s not to house books. Though Cooper says each new library begins with an opening-day collection of at least 40,000 books and houses more volumes than when it was shut down for renovations, the impressive new structures don’t feel very book-heavy, largely because they’re doing so much else.

“They’re really becoming community centers,” says John Hill, president of the D.C. Board of Library Trustees. “Circulation has increased, but the digital library, if you were to consider it a branch, it’d be the largest-circulating branch except for MLK. That says a lot about what we need to do.”

Only over the past decade has DCPL truly sought to bridge its digital and brick-and-mortar operations, which means an increase in both the number of computers—-DCPL had just 100 public-access computers in 2006 and now has 886, according to DCPL spokesman George Williams—-and the number of meeting rooms and community spaces where, contra library stereotypes, talking is encouraged. It means flexibility: Much of the shelving at Mount Pleasant and other new libraries is on wheels, which Hill says allows for more gathering areas and less book acreage as demand continues to shift. And it explains why the teen rooms that are now in every library are generally equipped with Apple computers for creative programs that have the secondary mission, Hill says, of keeping kids off the streets. Likewise, though MLK patrons might occasionally complain of their persistent presence, the library also gives the city’s homeless residents a place off the streets.

“Libraries are the one place that people can go regardless of their income or whether they have a home or not,” says Hill. “It’s the one safe place.”

Hill believes DCPL is shouldering more of the homeless burden than it should have to and that the city needs a more comprehensive approach to balance the load. But Cooper notes that MLK is less dominated by homeless people than it once was, and Hill says that if DCPL realizes its renovation plans for MLK and the library becomes home to a more diverse set of activities, their presence will be felt less. (MLK has mostly shed one unwanted use: relentless sex cruising that led library officials to take the doors off the men’s room stalls in the 1990s and later replace them with half doors.)

A test of the library’s strength as a community gathering place came with last summer’s derecho storm, which knocked out power for nearly half a million Pepco customers in D.C. and Maryland. Like New York-area libraries after Hurricane Sandy, libraries across the District served as refuges, and some saw their profiles boosted by the storm in ways their expensive architecture had failed to achieve.

“When we first opened, the expectation was, we’re going to get slammed the first few weeks,” recalls Kerby Valladares, manager of the $18 million David Adjaye-designed Francis Gregory Library in Hillcrest, which, like Mount Pleasant, opened last summer. “And it was actually very quiet. It wasn’t until the derecho hit—-the storm knocked out power and we were the only place with power. So people just flocked in to use our Internet and power. That was our opening.”

Valladares says Francis Gregory usership remained strong thereafter, with most of the library’s patrons coming to use computers. It’s a nationwide trend amid the recession: People without home computers visit the library to craft resumes, set up email, and submit job applications.

“We know for many people in the District, we are their computers,” says Cooper, who notes that library computer use tends to be higher in poorer areas east of the Anacostia River, while circulation is higher in wealthier neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park. (Last year, circulation was above 150,000 at the Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, Georgetown, and Tenley-Friendship branches; it was below 40,000 at Bellevue, Capitol View, and Deanwood, as well as at west-of-the-river Northwest One, in Mt. Vernon Triangle.) “That’s where they apply for jobs, file for unemployment benefits, communicate with teachers at schools,” says Cooper. A 2010 study found that around 40 percent of DCPL computer users were using the machines to research jobs and submit applications, and that 20 percent of them reported landing jobs as a result.

The modern-day conception of libraries as computer terminals embraces a democratizing task, filling in the gaps left by the digitization of media consumption and communication. Libraries have always been social equalizers, of course, where rich and poor alike have access to free books and services. But as libraries lean more on digital circulation, they also risk becoming less democratic, as people without computers or Kindles have little use for e-books. DCPL is taking steps to address that worry, offering computer training courses upon completion of which participants get free refurbished desktop computers.

DCPL’s all-of-the-above approach to turning libraries into community resources has extended to hacker conferences, ambitions for tech incubators, and even neurology. “Every single location has at least one program a week for babies and toddlers,” says Cooper. “We know that that’s a really critical role for us, that reading and singing to babies helps their brains develop well.”

But for what was once considered the core function of a library, times have been tight. In fiscal year 2012, DCPL’s collections budget, used to acquire books, was just $1.67 million, down from $4.27 million three years earlier. Cooper says that budget wasn’t sufficient to replace books that needed replacing, let alone expand the collection. This fiscal year, due to a one-time allocation approved by the D.C. Council and the mayor, it’s back up to $3.85 million, and Cooper plans to spend most of it on print books.

Still, the trend toward other library uses will continue. DCPL and other library systems across the country have decided that a library’s mission is to serve the demands of the community, whatever they may be. If that means a diminished emphasis on books, so be it. “It’s a community space,” says Cooper. “People come to check out books, they come to be with their community, and it’s a place of pride for the community. It’s a way that government says, ‘Here’s what you’re worth. This library, built by money you paid, it’s yours.'”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery