What do you think of when you hear the word "library?"
Go back in time, and you may recall the card catalog, the summer reading club, stacks of books, rows of encyclopedias, maybe some microfiche, and a librarian to help you find the right resource.
Fast forward: today, libraries are a much needed and - as a new research study notes - a much utilized essential service that keeps the books and helpful librarians but also combines technology, training and tools for today's digital society.
The changing role of today's public library is on the agenda this week when thousands of librarians, authors, Friends, and library advocates of converge in Washington, D.C., for the American Library Association Annual Conference. And, there is plenty to talk about- including a new report that documents the public library's role as a community technology hub. The 2010 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, funded by the ALA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, confirms recent headlines from cities and towns across the country: the majority of libraries have experienced increased use of their public computers and wireless service; supporting job seekers has become the most critical community use of library technology; and more libraries are open fewer hours. In fact, data shows that about 15 percent of all libraries - and 24 percent of urban libraries - reported decreased operating hours last year.
The report, though, brings into focus several topics several trends that may be less well-known:
- The role of libraries in supporting e-government. From unemployment benefits to state tax forms, more government information and services are moving online, often without a print alternative. Seventy-nine percent of libraries (up from 54 percent one year ago) report they assisted library patrons in accessing and applying for government services. Having more options for interacting with government agencies makes sense as long as we don't forget that many people still lack easy access to computers and the Internet. And still more lack the skills to navigate complex government websites, which takes me to my second point...
- The role of libraries in supporting digital literacy. Our public libraries serve everyone in the community - from babies in storytime programs to high school seniors prepping for SAT and researching financial aid, to small business owners using the library as their "home" office. This applies to computer and technology users, as well. Almost 90 percent of libraries provide formal or informal technology training to library patrons. This expertise extends from the patron establishing his first email account to the nurse who combined her health care knowledge with new technology skills gained at her local library to get hired as a Nursing Informatics Specialist.
- The increasing availability of Internet services, through the library's "virtual branch" (aka the library website) 24/7. Sixty-six percent of libraries, for instance, now offer e-books to library patrons, up from 38 percent three years ago. Students can take advantage of online homework help (88%). Seventy-two percent of libraries answer reference questions now by email, text, chat or IM, so you can get help in a hurry. And almost every library, on its own or with help from the state library, provides access to licensed databases that provide everything from full-text newspaper and magazine articles to practice tests to book recommendations.
Right now libraries face funding challenges that surpass those seen even in the Great Depression. In the 1930s, cities and counties maintained or expanded their funding for public libraries, in recognition of their roles in supporting economic development, lifelong learning and free and equal access to information and resources. At the time, a representative from the Carnegie Library noted, "Impartial observers say that with the exception of those agencies giving actual relief, the public libraries of the United States are perhaps our most important public institutions during times of business depression." Some things haven't changed over the years!
People around the country can only benefit from improved library resources if library doors are open and there is adequate staff to manage and support public access. The time to speak out for our libraries is now. Find out what's happening in your state, join the national Library Advocacy Day on June 29 or simply contact your local library to see how you can get involved in supporting one of our most democratic institutions.