Opportunity and Access: The Power of Today's Public Libraries

Anyone who hasn't been living on the far side of the moon knows and acknowledges that success today depends on information: access to it and the skills to exploit it.
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By Paul LeClerc - President, The New York Public Library

Anyone who hasn't been living on the far side of the moon knows and acknowledges that success today depends on information: access to it and the skills to exploit it.

And it's been recognized, at least since the time of Jefferson--who said that information is the currency of a democracy--that a more just society is founded on the notion that its people will have free access to information.

Nonetheless, communities across America are now contemplating cutting the budgets and even closing the doors of the one organization whose sole reason for existence is to provide everyone with free access to the ever-expanding universe of information today: public libraries.

The most benign interpretation that could be given to a policy of reduced funding, and therefore limited access, to public libraries is that they are no longer relevant to American society, that the dream of universal free access to information that Andrew Carnegie had when he paid for 1,500 public libraries to be built across the nation has been realized.

Those who see libraries from this perspective tend to have the money to buy whatever mode of information access they desire, be it e-book readers, iPads, physical books, or computers and hand-held devices with Internet access, wherever they are.

In other words, paying for information--if only indirectly by paying for the devices and platforms that make it available--is seen by some as the new paradigm. If physical public libraries are no longer relevant to me, how could they possibly be to others? So why continue to pay for them to be open five or six or seven days a week?

If you look at how the American public is actually using its neighborhood libraries today, however, you come up with a radically different picture.

"Opportunity for All," a remarkable new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published recently by the Institute of Museum and Library Services--a federal agency analogous to the two National Endowments--shows that, in the last year, an astonishing 169 million (69%) Americans 14 years of age or older visited a public library.

Moreover, one out of three Americans 14 years or older visit once a week or more often. Library visits are highest among: the working poor; people of mixed race; 14-18, 35-44, and 65-74 year olds; women; and people with educational attainment beyond high school.

Many factors are driving this unprecedented level of use of public libraries. But the study shows that principal among them is the work of library staff to meet the information needs of the communities they serve.

One universal need being met by American public libraries in every community is Internet access, with 45 percent of the 169 million visitors using a library computer or wireless network during their visit in the past twelve months.

Nearly half the nation's 14 to 18 year olds used a library computer last year, and one quarter did so once a week or more. The most common use of library computers by teenagers was to do homework.

For those living below the poverty line, access to library computers was particularly important, with 54% of seniors in this category using them to access information on health or wellness and 61% of young adults using them for educational purposes.

This impressive report offers dramatic proof of the relevance of public libraries today. It proves that "public libraries stand out as one of the few community institutions that can address the computing and information needs of all kinds of users, from seniors who have never touched a keyboard to young entrepreneurs launching a new eBusiness strategy."

So, with more people using libraries and for more different reasons than ever before, does curtailing access to public libraries by cutting their budgets make any sense at all, from any point of view?

Or, put another way, does it really advance the welfare of any community, state, or indeed the nation, to deprive its citizens of free, ample, and cost-effective access to information through public libraries in an era when information itself is not only the foundation of our democracy but that of our economy itself?

Jefferson or Carnegie wouldn't have thought so. Neither should anyone determining the budget of a public library.

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