Libraries: The Rumors of My Death have been Greatly Exaggerated
Opportunity For All study shows surprising use of internet access at libraries.
By Michael Stillman
Libraries would appear to be a threatened species, if you read the news. A 24-hour vigil was recently held at City Hall in Newark, New Jersey, to protest the closing of two branches and seriously reduced hours at others. Downstate in Camden, officials were debating whether to close one of their two remaining branches. Services in Long Beach, California, were recently spared reductions only after private contributions were offered, but libraries in Oregon that were severely cut after the loss of timber production revenues a few year back are again under assault. In Pasco County, Florida (Dade City), one branch was saved by reducing hours at the others.
Two factors have come into play to make this a difficult time for these cultural and educational institutions that thrived for a century in America after Andrew Carnegie made it his goal to cover the nation with local libraries. One is the difficult economic times that have impacted some of us financially, and others, still employed but fearful, psychologically. If the President, his economic advisers, Congress and the Federal Reserve are all struggling to rectify this situation, there's not much librarians can do to solve it.
The other factor is public perception of libraries as outdated, unused repositories of old technology. These are perceptions held primarily by those who don't use libraries. The reality is that while some may be dragging their feet, there are major changes going on in most libraries. Like us, they are feeling their way into the new world of technology, and their role in providing us with information, education, and entertainment is as crucial for many today as it was in Carnegie's time. Surviving this period of budget cuts is critical as libraries, which not long ago had all of the attributes of dinosaurs, are reviving their essential roles in the life of our communities.
Libraries around the nation have been making use of grants funded through the Library Services and Technology Act, passed in 1996, to upgrade their services to better serve people in the digital age. This act replaced an earlier one that had been focused more on providing aid for construction of physical space. In Georgetown County, South Carolina, the local library made use of these funds to purchase Kindle electronic readers. They bought 25 of them, which people can use at the library to read books (the Kindles are not available for check out). While that may not sound entirely convenient, the program is enabling people to learn how to use these devices. Additionally, with Georgetown being a rural and not wealthy county, many of its residents are not in a position to buy electronic readers or the books to be downloaded on them.
In Hartford, a grant is being used by the library to offer instruction in art and writing for people aged 55 and up. This may not be high technology, but it is drawing people into the library by offering services not likely to be found elsewhere. The Sayre Public Library in Pennsylvania is using these funds to offer computer instruction to people middle aged and up. In Carson City, Nevada, they used grant funds to purchase a radio frequency check out system. It has freed up personnel who used to check out books by hand to provide more help to patrons, and allowed the library to extend its hours, even with fewer employees. In Sevier County, Tennessee, grant funds were used to provide video gaming. That may not sound like a literary use, but it is bringing young people into the library, and by offering games suitable for intergenerational use, it may help bring diverse age groups together. The list goes on...
Libraries: The Rumors of My Death have been Greatly Exaggerated
Opportunity For All reports that 69% of U.S. population aged 14 and up visits libraries.
This is only a small part of what is happening. Many libraries now make books available in electronic format so those with e-readers can check e-books out of the library, just as they used to do with printed books (though a trip to the library may not be necessary). Instead of having to return the book in ten days, it simply disappears from your reader when the time is up, freeing it to be "checked out" by someone else. This may not work if you have Amazon's proprietary Kindle, but will work with Barnes and Noble's Nook and most other electronic readers.
Meanwhile, a report supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Opportunity For All, released last spring shows that libraries are being increasingly used as a place to connect to the internet. This may seem surprising, even counterintuitive, but nonetheless true. Many people cannot afford internet connections, and in some rural areas, high speed is not readily available to individual households. Try visiting the most popular sites today with dial up!
However, what may be even more surprising is that internet use is not confined to, nor even used mostly by, people who cannot afford internet connections at home. The primary users are people who have, or can afford, connections at home. They come to the library to access the internet for other reasons, such as technical assistance, job searching, or simply for the social interaction. The study shows that 45% of the 169 million people who visited a library last year made use of their internet services, despite the fact that 75% of these individuals had access to the internet at home or elsewhere. Nevertheless, library access was particularly beneficial to those of limited financial means. It found 44% of people living below the poverty line used library computers, including 61% of students and young adults (ages 14-24).
While youth seeking help with their studies is the largest age group using library computers, the study found substantial usage across all age groups. This can be explained by the primary use of library internet connections being social connections, with seeking employment opportunities almost as great a use as furthering one's education. Learning about health and wellness was also right up there, likely of greater concern to older people than youngsters. The study points out, "Library technology services are not used by a chosen few." It notes that libraries have come to play the role of the old "town square," where people came to connect with others, exchange ideas, and learn. Finally, the study concludes, "this is a moment when federal, state, and local governments should invest more, not less, in the computing capacity of the nation's libraries."
Libraries not long ago may have looked distressingly like dinosaurs, but like those lumbering giants of yesteryear, they are rapidly evolving into swift birds. They deserve our support.