Think We No Longer Need Libraries? Think Again.

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Public libraries in America are under attack. If we’re not careful, we could lose one of our nation’s most valuable learning and community resources.

In an American Library Association (ALA) survey of 7,260 public libraries on public usage and funding for the budget year 2011-2012, 57% of participating libraries reported that their funding was flat or decreased. Twenty-three states cut funding for public libraries – the third year in a row that 40% of states did so.

No doubt one reason for this erosion of financial support for public libraries is that we live in an era of government austerity, ushered in by the recent recession. Another is that we live in a political climate that will not tolerate tax increases – and our tax dollars fund libraries.

But another reason is an ongoing debate over whether the Internet, e-books and mobile technology have made libraries obsolete. Proponents of this idea argue that with almost everything worth knowing available online, why do we need large, expensive buildings to house physical books and well-trained, expert libraries to help patrons navigate what they probably think of as dusty stacks of unused books?

Clearly, these people have not visited their local public library recently.

Maybe they are fortunate enough to have powerful computers, smartphones and high-speed Internet connections in their homes or where they work. Maybe they and and their children have quiet places in their homes where they can read or study without distractions. Maybe they have their own books, magazines and newspapers at hand or prefer to read the electronic versions on their tablets and e-readers.

Or maybe they think of libraries as being just for “older people” – people who are not as proficient or comfortable using technology and prefer to cling to outdated ways of doing things.

Whatever their reasons for not supporting public libraries, they have overlooked the role public libraries play in our communities, the lives of individuals and our society – a role they have always played, now with a modern twist.

Americans have Andrew Carnegie to thank for our public library system. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Carnegie gave more than $55 million to communities across the country to build libraries – a huge sum in those days. Carnegie did this because he believed that anyone with the desire to learn and the ability to educate themselves could be successful in America, just as he had been. Nearly 1,700 libraries were built and staffed as a result of his philanthropy.

Today there are nearly 9,000 public libraries in America. And the services of libraries have evolved.

In the ALA survey noted above, for example, participating libraries reported the following upswings in public usage of new services:

  • 36% increase in use of technology classes
  • 58% increased in use of electronic resources
  • 60% increase in use of computers
  • 74% increase in use of WiFi

Further, a 2013 Pew Research Center report on younger Americans’ library habits and expectations concluded that “Americans ages 16-29 are heavy technology users, including in using computers and the Internet at libraries. At the same time, most still read and borrow printed books, and value a mix of traditional and technological library services.”

The study found that Americans under age 30 are just as likely as older adults to visit the library, borrowing print books and browsing the shelves at similar rates. When asked what is “very important” for libraries to offer, this is what they said:

  • 80% – Librarians to help people find information they need
  • 76% – Research resources such as free databases
  • 75% – Free access to computers and the Internet
  • 75% – Books for people to borrow
  • 72% – Quiet study spaces
  • 72% – Programs and classes for children and teens
  • 71% – Job and career resources

Public libraries remain valuable resources for learners of all ages in communities all over the country. Libraries are so valued by the people who use them that they simply cannot meet the growing demand for both traditional and new services of all types.

One new service is aimed at developing maker spaces in libraries – workspaces for people involved in the maker movement and others interested in collaborating to build and make physical and virtual objects.

The role of librarians has evolved as well as they now help people find information not only housed in their library but anywhere in the world through the Internet.

Remember the old saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Let’s not make that mistake with our nation’s public libraries.

[Photo Credit: John Armato on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]

This article appeared on LinkedIn on March 10th, 2014 and can be viewed there by clicking here.
Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise, a non-profit whose mission is to vastly improve the opportunity for all Americans to learn by accelerating innovation in education through technology and research. From 2009-2013, Cator was Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.