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Susan H.  Hildreth

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Libraries Succeed by Constantly Evolving

Posted: 01/13/12 10:25 AM ET

People depend on libraries now more than ever. Not only do visits and circulation continue to rise, the role of public libraries in providing Internet resources to the public continues to increase as well. Public libraries have also increased their program offerings to meet greater demand and provide more targeted services.

In the business world, such demand for an industry's services would mean big profits for that sector. But despite the demonstrated ability of libraries to adjust to meet the growing needs of the public, many libraries across the country face severe budget cuts.

There is no doubt that the future success of libraries depends on their ability to change and evolve to meet the changing ways that people access and use information. As director of the Institute of Museums and Library Services, the federal voice for library and museum service in the U.S. -- I see three big goals for libraries: provide engaging learning experiences, become community anchors, and provide access to content even as the devices for accessing that content change rapidly.

These are some of the findings of the Institute of Museum and Library Services' report on the FY2009 Public Library Survey (PLS), a census of American public libraries.

The Institute's analysis of the data showed that per capita visits to libraries rose by 24 percent in the century's first decade, while circulation increased by 26 percent. In 2009, libraries were visited a record-breaking 1.59 billion times. Libraries have defied the conventional wisdom that Google, Wikipedia, and the like would make them obsolete. That's because they've recognized and responded to the evolving ways in which people use libraries.

Those who prematurely announced the demise of libraries at the hands of the Internet failed to anticipate the symbiotic relationship that would develop between the two institutions. As revealed by Interconnections: The IMLS National Study on the Use of Libraries, Museums, and the Internet, Internet users are much more likely to visit public libraries than non-Internet users.

Libraries' ability to provide public access to the Internet accounts for much of the change in the way people use these institutions. In the 12-month period studied for the IMLS-funded Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access (PDF) at U.S. Libraries, 77 million Americans aged 14 and older took advantage of Internet access in a public library. That number represents 46 percent of all library visitors during that same period and 32 percent of all Americans over the age of 14.

The ways in which these library visitors use the Internet is illustrative of how vital a public service this has become. The data collected for Opportunity for All show that 42 percent of those using library computers for Internet access used it to advance educational goals; 40 percent had career or employment purposes, with three-quarters of those specifically seeking a job; 37 percent were focused on health and wellness; and 34 percent used the library's Internet connection to link to government officials, programs, and services. These are not leisurely activities that one may choose to pursue or not pursue; they are central to life and well-being.

The IMLS National Medal for Library Service is given for exceptional outreach to the community. So a look at some recent recipients of that honor provides excellent examples of innovative ways in which libraries are keeping up with their patrons' needs.

With unemployment in the Columbus, Ohio area hovering around 10 percent, the Columbus Metropolitan Library has opened Job Help Centers serving some 44,000 people in 2010. The library augments the program by bringing in partners with expertise in employment, entrepreneurship, and business development and promotes it to the community and other libraries through Job Help Week at Your Library.

CML is also one of the first winners of a national competition sponsored by IMLS and the MacArthur Foundation to build 21st-century learning labs in museums and libraries around the country. The labs will use digital media tools to enhance learning and create a collaborative community of teens.

In a remote, mountainous region of Idaho, the Weippe Public Library & Discovery Center brought high-speed Internet service to the tiny town of Weippe and will soon expand the current library-centered cell phone service to serve the entire community. The library also helps residents apply for jobs and unemployment assistance and learn basic computer skills.

The Alachua County Library District in Gainesville, Florida is filling the gap as government social services agencies close and offer their services online only. Through the Library Partnership, residents have access to health and legal services, rent and utility subsidies, tax assistance, counseling for substance or domestic abuse, and a host of other social services.

The Library Partnership also serves as a distribution point for book and clothing drives and runs a backpack program that provides weekend food for children in the free/reduced lunch program. The success of the Library Partnership has encouraged other communities to develop partnerships of their own and it has attracted new partners from unexpected places such as the Alachua County Sheriff, who sees this program as having a positive impact on crime prevention.

The extraordinary ability of libraries to evolve with the needs of their patrons has resulted in Americans using libraries now more than ever, and using them for more essential purposes than ever.

And yet, on average, American libraries are seeing a decline in financial support. This unfortunate paradox should not be overlooked.