Commentary: Technological and economic shifts have only made libraries more valuable

By Roberta Stevens
Monday, November 8, 2010

Today's challenging economy demands strategic investments. While the job market continues to recover, one of the best uses of public and private funds is to help ensure that people are digitally literate and are improving their employment skills.

Increasingly, the local public library serves as the community technology hub for training, digital literacy and, yes, even books.

While some believed the Internet might retire the library, the reverse has occurred. Over the past decade, libraries have embraced technology resources, and library visits and circulation have grown by 20 percent. The recession has only increased the demands on the public library.

Yet providing the full range of services to the public is possible only when libraries remain open. Locally, fiscal 2011 funding cuts have led to reduced staff and services and fewer operational hours in libraries in Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties and the District.

As businesses in the D.C. area know, increasingly employment and government information is online -- and sometimes online only. Libraries open doors for millions of Americans who may lack Internet access or the skills to survive and thrive online. Sixty-seven percent of libraries, in fact, report helping library patrons apply for jobs online last year.

The 2010 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study conducted by the American Library Association and the Center for Library & Information Innovation at the University of Maryland found that in two-thirds of U.S. communities, public libraries offer the only free public access to computers and the Internet. Maryland and Virginia libraries report similar percentages statewide.

Libraries in the region are complementing access with vital technology training. Virtually all Maryland and D.C. public libraries provide formal or informal training, as do 91 percent of Virginia libraries. Helping people with a variety of things from office software to online job searching, libraries are helping to create a more competitive workforce with the skills needed to navigate the 21st century workplace.

In site visits associated with the national study, it became clear that entrepreneurs also are power users of library technology. With more than 82 percent of public libraries providing free WiFi, many small-business people and travelers turn to their libraries as a satellite home office. In addition, libraries are investing in robust digital collections, including online business and investing resources such as RefUSA, Morningstar and the Wall Street Journal, which are available in most area libraries free with a library card.

Maryland, Virginia and D.C. public libraries top national averages in nearly every category -- including available computers and WiFi, Internet speeds and available Internet services. And a $1.5 million federal stimulus broadband grant will allow the D.C. Public Library to further improve its services by enhancing Internet speeds and increasing the number of computers.

Here's a message to elected leaders as they balance budgets: Today's libraries are an essential service and provide resources to ensure a competitive workforce.

All of us -- parents, families, seniors and businesses large or small -- must speak up to keep libraries open and available. The time to act is now: Phone or e-mail local officials supporting libraries and become a "friend of" your library.

The resources in your local library have the power to change the world; but the doors must be kept open.

Roberta Stevens is president of the American Library Association.

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