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Public libraries facing a ‘Perfect Storm’

Demand for services rises while budgets fall

Created date

August 24th, 2010

In 1731, Ben Franklin opened The Library Company of Philadelphia, America s first successful lending library. Two hundred and seventy-eight [caption id="attachment_14090" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Two young women surf the Internet at their local library. (Photos courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) "][/caption] years later, budget shortfalls threatened to close every public library in Philadelphia. Library lovers breathed a sigh of relief when the funds were secured to keep the libraries open, but for many public libraries across the U.S. the story isn t ending quite so happily. Today s libraries are vastly different from serious reading rooms of Franklin s day. While books still take up a lot of real estate in public libraries, modern technology is the draw for many of the estimated 77 million patrons a year. According to a recent study, nearly one-third of Americans age 14 and older used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet in the past year. People from all walks of life use library computers to perform routine and life-changing tasks, from e-mailing friends to finding jobs, says Michael Crandall, chair of the Master of Science in Information Management program at the University of Washington Information School which conducted the study. More than three-quarters of those who used library Internet connections had access at home, work, or elsewhere. Oftentimes, they needed a faster connection, assistance from a librarian, or temporary access in an emergency. The public library has become a vital link for jobseekers, people who need help navigating on-line forms for government programs, and those in [caption id="attachment_14088" align="alignright" width="280" caption="A man accesses the Internet at the Chicago Public Library. "][/caption] need of computer-based training programs. In 1996, only 28% of the nation s public libraries offered access to the Internet. Today, that number has risen to 99%.

A perfect storm

As demand for computer services at public libraries rises, the recession continues to squeeze library budgets creating what experts call a perfect storm. A librarian in Sanbornville, N.H., puts it this way, We are a rural library in New Hampshire experiencing a huge increase in computer use and job searches due to the economic times. Ironic, isn t it, that library usage is so high and yet the threat remains of budget cuts, especially for the coming budget year? Forty-one state library budgets saw reductions during fiscal year 2010. These reductions not only limit access to library resources through closings and reduced hours, they also limit system upgrades to keep technology current. Computer and Internet access at public libraries connects millions of Americans to economic, educational, and social opportunities each year, but libraries struggle to replace aging computer workstations and provide the high-speed Internet connections patrons need, says Jill Nishi, deputy director of U.S. Libraries at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As demand for these services rise, public and private investment to support public access to technology at libraries is more critical than ever.

Where will people go?

Over the past three months, I have found myself at the Abington Community Library for many hours a day, four to five days a week, says [caption id="attachment_14089" align="alignright" width="280" caption="A husband and wife connect to the Internet at the Chicago Public Library. "][/caption] Bethany Pisanchyn of Clarks Summit, Pa. Pisanchyn used library computers to find a job. Without my own computer or Internet access, I needed some other means to assist me in this task. After three long, hard months of browsing job listings, completing applications, and mailing resume packets, I was delighted to celebrate my recent news with my friends at the Abington Community Library. Without the resources and help of my local library, I would have had quite a difficult time in my job search. If funding was cut, I think it would devastate the area. One day I waited on the phone for 45 minutes before I hung up, says Elsie Werden, who needed important information about Medicare Part D to make sure her husband s expensive medication was included in the plan she chose. Frustrated, Werden headed to her local library in Hudson, Fla. With assistance from the e-government librarian at Pasoc County Library, Werden was enrolled in under 30 minutes. For anyone without a computer, you re really out of luck. Patrons like Werden rely on the Pasoc County Library so much, demand for service has risen 177% over the past year. At the same time, budget cuts are reducing the library s hours. What are people going to do for assistance when the public libraries close? Most do not have access to free computer service anywhere but in the public library. Many don t have computer skills and have nowhere to go to learn the skills except the public library. Yet public libraries are being closed and staff laid off, says library director Linda Allen. There is no ambiguity in these numbers. Millions of people see libraries as an essential tool to connect them to information, knowledge, and opportunities, says Marsha Semmel, acting director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Policy makers must fully recognize and support the role libraries are playing in workforce development, education, health and wellness, and the delivery of government services.