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Change Agent

Patrons rally behind resilient public libraries

Even as libraries are facing steep cuts, Americans are using them more than ever – in more ways than ever.

By Cat JohnsonYES! Magazine / October 3, 2011

Patrons read, study and use the wi-fi in the Seward Park Library in New York. Despite cutbacks, public libraries are innovating, evolving – and thriving.



“People who talk about libraries dying out are the ones who remember the libraries of their childhood,” says American Library Association (ALA) President, Molly Raphael, from her home in Portland, Ore. “But the library of today is not the library of our childhood, and the library that children see today is not the library we’ll see in 20 years.”

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Raphael is giving me an insider’s perspective of the current state of libraries, which are actually thriving. They are evolving and innovating despite significant economic challenges and budget cuts, and people are utilizing libraries at steady or increasing rates.

The State of America’s Libraries Report for 2011 notes that library visitation per capita and circulation per capita have both increased in the past 10 years. Raphael explains that libraries have a long history of embracing new mediums for sharing information. From records and video tapes to the Internet, Blu-ray, e-books, and file downloads, libraries have always adapted to meet the changing needs of their patrons.

“In general, libraries embraced the Internet right away,” says Raphael. “And not just to provide computers for patrons. They recognized that it became a new tool for librarians.”

Libraries play a crucial role in bridging the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet, and those without.

When Raphael started working in libraries, reference librarians got a lot of one-word-answer questions such as, “How do you spell this word?” or “Should I use the singular or plural here?” These days, librarians need to not only be tech-savvy, but also play the role of teacher, research guide, electronic-information navigator, and employment counselor.

As communication and information become increasingly digital, libraries and librarians help people to keep up with what has become the norm. Libraries are, for many, the only option for accessing computers and the Internet.

“There’s a huge digital divide that still exists in this country and many people don’t have computers in their homes or offices, or can’t afford high-speed internet,” says Raphael, noting that 65 percent of libraries report that they are the only place for free Internet access in their town. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 95 percent of high-income households use the Internet at home while only 57 percent of lower-income households do.

A digital divide, which widens in rural and low-income areas, coupled with a national financial crisis, means that libraries play a crucial role in bridging the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet, and those without.

Raphael explains that in economically challenging times such as these, library use increases significantly. Despite decreased funding, branch closures, and reduced hours and staffing, many branches and library systems are posting their highest numbers ever in terms of circulation and number of patrons through the doors.

“Library use in economic recessions always goes up,” says Raphael. “It’s counter to what the funding is. When funding starts to be cut back, use goes up,” she continues, “and use has been increasing dramatically in the last couple of years.”

While the increase in usage can be attributed to people having less discretionary income for books and magazines, it is also due to libraries’ continued evolution. Offering musical scores, toys, art, CDs and DVDs, radiation detectors, portable smoke detectors, tools, kilowatt-measuring devices, zines, seeds, and more, libraries have become lenders of a variety of useful items.


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