Monday, September 16, 2013

Are Public Libraries Relevant?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the library of the 21st century. The job descriptions of public librarians look nothing like they did in 1990, and those in 1990 looked far different from those in 1980. Things continue to change rapidly as new technologies emerge and become ubiquitous in the lives of some Americans. Have technological innovations like the internet, e-books, and databases made physical libraries unnecessary?

 Public libraries are no longer primarily concerned with physical books, but rather information literacy. While we still want to put the newest Baldacci, Connelly, and Johansen text in your hands to enjoy, this only represents a portion of our mandate as a public service to our community. What public libraries continue to obsess about, to strive for, is access to information and then how to discern what you locate, in whatever format. Some might think that the ability to "Google" something has made our job unnecessary, but in fact this ability has introduced a host of information sources which are not reliable or tested. Prior to the digital revolution it was much easier to determine whether an information source could be trusted, as a result information literacy is now critical as we sort through the unorganized mess that is the internet. Now self-publishing is common, and literally anyone can post information online (even me!). The internet has certainly made discovery easier for everyone, and a search engine remains an excellent place to start when doing research, but it is just that, a start. "Library Science," the degree professional librarians often obtain, has given way to "Information Science," "Informatics," and similar fields which better reflect the needs of the 21st century patron. "Library Science" reflects the print era, but today, managing our physical collections, that novel you're waiting for, is a fraction of our responsibility.

I said one of the primary concerns of the 21st century library is providing access to information, but what do I mean? According to a 2013 report by the Census Bureau entitled "Computer and Internet Use in the United States," 25% (about 33 million) of American households do not have access to a computer. In addition, 29% of households do not have internet access from home. While it might seem everyone has an iPad or smartphone, it simply isn't yet the case in the US. The digital divide, the phrase used to describe the lack of access, is particularly prevalent in the Hispanic and African-American communities where they are nearly 20% more likely to have limited home access. This lack of access is no small matter. Public libraries exist in part to fill this gap between those with access and those without. During the hardest months and years of the recession public libraries across the country were filled with people looking and applying for work online and using Microsoft Word to complete their resumes. Free access to this  and similar technology remains critical as many in the workforce seek to update their skills. 

Public libraries are no longer silent tombs with cranky librarians "shushing" those who dare break the silence, but rather vibrant community centers bustling with activity. Close your eyes and think of a librarian. What do you visualize? Glasses, dowdy, uptight, out of touch. Accurate...maybe in 1850. Librarians have long stood for freedom of speech, equality, and literacy. We strive to be unbiased and provide the widest possible lens on the world via what you find on our shelves. We really do hand-pick our items, it's not automated. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been in the Grand Blanc branch lately to know that public libraries are no longer silent. Sure, we have rooms for silent study, and we want to be that place away from home to get work done. That said, we are open to the public, and every day after school you will find multiple tutors helping local students succeed at school, entrepreneurs discussing their business plans, and librarians explaining our resources and services. While the library is a conversation-filled place, and a place where respect is paramount, silence cannot be guaranteed outside the study rooms so don't feel uncomfortable talking.

Think of librarians as "waiting for my question" rather than people who "don't want to be disturbed." I can't tell you how many times someone approaches me and says "I hate to bother you but..." This is really a symptom of bad PR on our part as well as the nature of what we do. Unless you look like you're looking for something, we all know the look, I probably won't disturb you. People have all sorts of things they need to accomplish and we don't wish to interfere as you go about your day. But we welcome your questions, it's a huge part of what we are trained to do. We have been asked everything - everything - so please don't hesitate. I have the privilege of being on a first-name basis with many of the people I see, some every day, and rightly so, public libraries often know their communities better than anyone else.

While none of us can predict what the next 10 years will bring, I am confident that public libraries will continue to be one of the few free public services available to anyone who walks through our doors.

We are modern. We are relevant.
We are committed to enriching your life and equipping you for success.    

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