By now, public libraries should have been starting to check out. Computers, and the Internet in particular, were expected to have started rendering printed books and magazines obsolete. The sort of research that once required consultation with a librarian would be done instead with the help of Yahoo or Google, technology enthusiasts wrote.
And yet, rather than lead to the demise of libraries, the World Wide Web may have turned out to be a their saving grace. The Internet is fueling an increase in library use which, in turn, has led to a library-construction and renovation boom.
Last year, $686 million was spent on library construction the second-highest dollar total ever spent, and a 15 percent increase over a decade ago, American Library Association data shows. Aside from the construction of 80 new libraries, 132 existing ones underwent renovations: creating new space, wiring old buildings for high-speed Internet access, and buying computers.
"People have been saying and writing that libraries aren't going to be around much longer, that books are irrelevant, but the renovation of buildings and adding new buildings is an affirmation," says Maurice Freedman, ALA president and director of the Westchester County, N.Y. library system. "The allocation of serious money says Americans all over this nation believe their libraries have a future."
Indeed, to paraphrase an author whose books are probably housed in every one of them, reports of the death of public libraries were greatly exaggerated. Cheap access to the Internet as well as to compact discs and DVDs have become a huge draw, and computers also have made using the library itself significantly easier, Mr. Freedman says.
As a result, about 1.7 billion items were checked out of America's 122,000 libraries in 1999, (the last year for which the figure is available), up 21 percent from 1990. And voters in 23 states passed referendums supporting libraries in 2001, including the approval of $46.4 million in Loudoun County, Va., and $40 million in Houston; New Mexico plans to ask voters for $35 million for libraries this fall.
Certainly, there are other reasons that libraries are on an upswing. Many of the new buildings and renovations also include construction of amphitheatres and rooms for community meetings, making the library the center of civic activity, especially in rural areas where it is often the only public building open every day. Library branches are also popping up in unexpected locations, such as the one on the second floor of a shopping mall in the border town of San Ysidro, Calif.
Still, what tickles library officials across the nation is the contradiction: that thousands of new visitors come in seeking access to Internet, the medium once expected to make libraries irrelevant.
In Reno, Nev., people line up before opening every day to use computers, says Mike Turner, associate director of the Washoe County Library District. The region of 350,000 is spending more than $12 million to build three branches and renovate one.
More proof of the significance of the role of the Internet in public libraries may be the fact that libraries are frequently the focus of the public debate and furor over what material should be available on the Web and how to protect children from online pornography and violence. Congress wanted to require libraries to use Internet filters, but a federal court in May struck down that 2000 law.
While ALA leaders are pleased with the record levels of library construction, they note that this has fostered a librarian shortage that may well get worse. As many as 58 percent of American librarians are over 45 years old and are expected to retire between 2005 and 2019. In the Information Age, students graduating with degrees in the library sciences are often snapped up by corporations, who pay more than the public sector, observers say.
Freedman says it's easier for library districts to raise money to build than to recruit and keep librarians. That's because voters approve bond issues for construction, but city leaders must find money for employees in the same tight budgets that pay for police, fire, and other services.
Still, Freedman insists, cities should take the consistent voter approval for library building around the country as a public mandate to spend what's necessary to make them functional. "The Internet is one of the stimuli for all these renovations, but the most overwhelming thing is the success of the public library as an institution," he says.