Beyond books: why you should check out your public library


The following op-ed, written for National Library Week, is co-authored by Paula Ellis, vice president/strategic initiatives at Knight Foundation, Deborah Jacobs, director, Global Libraries Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Julie Stasch, vice president of U.S. Programs at the MacArthur Foundation. Above: The Seattle Public Library, photo credit: Flickr user Joel Down.

For many of us, the public library will always be synonymous with books.

The books drew us to the library in the first place, helped us discover new worlds—both real and imaginary—beyond our day-to-day experiences.

Libraries continue to embody that same spirit of search and discovery, but in a manner that has been transformed as dramatically as the way we generate, share, and consume information. They make this new digital era available to all Americans.

In Chicago, for example, an innovative space at the main public library called YOUmedia lets any teen with a city library card have in-house access to computers plus video and audio recording equipment, to create their own content with the help of a mentor. At another YOUmedia space in Miami, workshops help teens think critically and creatively about their lives, by teaching them to publish an autobiographical digital story, or to visualize their favorite books. In a world where information is increasingly available, learning to analyze it, create it, and make it your own is a valued skill.

For many teens, the library may be the only place they can go to get online and be connected to the digital world. They are in good company. One-third of Americans—mostly older, rural, and/or poor—lack broadband access at home and can’t participate fully in contemporary life, much less in the $8 trillion global Internet-enabled economy.

Imagine the difficulty of finding work today without access to the Internet—especially when 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept online applications. According to a University of Washington study, in 2009, more than 30 million people used public library resources as part of their job search, with half of them filling out applications or submitting resumes. Those figures have only increased as libraries across America have added services for job seekers.

Beyond providing access, librarians are helping Americans navigate the digital landscape. Classes focus on everything from how to operate an e-reader to how to publish your own eBook. Libraries in Alaska, Oklahoma and other states are adding video conferencing capabilities. Some libraries will even connect you with a digital mentor to strengthen your skills.

Library services are no longer only contained in the physical library. Bookmobiles have been supplemented by mobile computer labs—visiting minority communities in St. Paul to teach digital literacy classes in Spanish, Hmong, and Somali, for example. In Dover, Mass., the library has installed QR codes around town that link signs at the market and playground to community information and services. Seattle Public Library offers live chats with librarians 24 hours a day, to help with answers to reference questions and homework.

The KnightMacArthur, and Gates foundations support public libraries because they help people acquire the skills to become lifelong learners, compete in the global economy, and provide the knowledge to participate in civic life. Libraries are a good investment.

Yet some communities are cutting library budgets, forcing reductions in service just when Americans most need to deepen the digital and information skills that libraries foster.

This National Library Week, rediscover your library, as a portal to other worlds—and your own community. Check out all the library has to offer and consider what you might have to offer it. It’s no longer just a place where you go to learn about someone else’s past, it’s a place to create your own future.