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Why Libraries Matter

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This blogpost is part of our ongoing series on Libraries In Crisis.

It seems that every time you pick up a newspaper or visit a website, you find a story about libraries facing major budget cuts.

The recession has proven a double edged sword for public libraries.

On the one hand, as the economy remains stagnant, deep budget cuts will continue to pose a threat to library service. According to the American Library Association's 2011 State of America's Libraries Report, 21 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011. Of these, nearly half indicated that the cuts were greater than 10 percent. The study also found that cuts at the state level were often compounded by cuts at the local level, the source of most library funding.

On the other hand, the struggling economy has fueled renewed interest and use in library services, with Americans capitalizing on free access to books, magazines, e-books, DVDs, the Internet and professional assistance. And public libraries are also serving as a lifeline for people trying to adapt to challenging economic circumstances, providing technology training and online resources for employment, access to government resources, continuing education, retooling for new careers and starting a small business.

Libraries not only benefit their users individually. They also act as community hubs, bringing people together and connecting them to worlds beyond their communities. Libraries offer more than just books; they are community centers where everyone has access to programs and services that fuel lifelong learning.

In nearly all communities, it is not unusual to see patrons lining up outside of library branches, waiting for their doors to open. Public libraries serve as a lifeline for those who need access to technologies such as computers and wireless environments. Libraries offer more than just access; they are staffed with trained professional librarians who assist library patrons in finding what they seek among the myriad of "hits" that Internet search engines generate.

Many communities across the country depend on public library staff and technology services more than ever. According to the 2011 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study, an annual report produced by the American Library Association (ALA) with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, more than 65 percent of public libraries report that they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. There is no question that demand for library computer access will continue to flourish as more employers and government agencies not only provide information exclusively in a digital format but also require information to be submitted on line.

Every library in the country has similar stories. America's libraries are helping America's workers return to work. Libraries are a lifeline for job-seekers. More than 74 percent of libraries offer software and other resources to help patrons create resumes and employment materials, and 72 percent of libraries report that staff helped patrons complete online job applications. A small example, repeated over and over in libraries across the country, will illustrate this point. In Portland, OR, a laid-off, middle-aged housekeeper, who had never used a computer, found a new housekeeping job with a major department store with the assistance of library staff who helped her complete a multi-page, online-only application.

Chicago's public library is also doing its part to help residents avoid potholes in the long road to economic recovery. Several branches host programs on using e-mail to help in the job search, as well as programs on starting a small business and even one on getting good deals on everything imaginable. The Chicago Public Library, like many other libraries, also offers free passes to many of Chicago's other cultural institutions.

The demand for library service is so great in Chicago that when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he planned to cut hours and eliminate library positions, the community fought back. After public outcry from Chicago aldermen and their constituents, Mayor Emanuel restored $3.3 million to the library budget, allowing for a full six-day-a-week schedule and preventing the layoff of more than 100 library employees. Cuts were still made to Chicago Public Libraries, but community support lessened the blow.

We need library supporters to continue to step forward all across the country. Many have and the results are impressive; decision-makers listen to what people in their communities want. Libraries design their services to meet the diverse needs of their specific communities so it is not surprising that people fight for what matters to them. Resources are available to help communities at ILoveLibraries.org.

In this economy everyone is expected to do more with less, but it is my hope that local governments understand that every service hour lost in our libraries translates into lost opportunities to connect people to distance education, employment opportunities and hands-on help.

Libraries provide an anchor of stability for millions of Americans tightening their financial belts during these tough economic times. As our nation - indeed the world - struggles to emerge from this economic crisis, we cannot afford to close the books on libraries. Libraries are very much a part of the solution, not just for individuals but for whole communities. We make essential resources available within our walls and in virtual space. Every hour lost, every building closed, every librarian laid off means less access for fewer people, just at a time when people need us the most. We need our diverse publics to speak out and say, "Libraries are essential for learning and essential for life."