Tuesday, June 29, 2010

There have been a lot of libraries in the news lately.  If you haven’t been aware, like all public services, libraries are potentially on the chopping block in communities where tax revenue or even overall population is down, and the government needs to shrink accordingly.  Most libraries are facing budget cuts in a time when demand on its resources is high, and many are being closed.

There’s also been a drastic change since the advent of the internet in how a library operates and what services it offered.  The last time you walked into a library, did you notice something missing?  How about that big case of file drawers, known as the card catalogue and a source of endless frustration?  Nearly all libraries have (or are in the process of) changing over to digital databases which can be searched in a number of ways.  Throw yourself back to elementary school, and you’re attempting to do a short paper on penguins.  So you walk over to the card catalogue, and open up the drawer labeled P, and you hope something with penguins in the title is there.  You then check for Antarctica under A.  And so on.  You then take your meager findings over to the shelf, and examine the books nearby whose titles don’t start with P or A for something useful.   Maybe you only find three books, which if you’re in elementary school, are likely plenty for your needs.  If you’re a college graduate student however…it’s time to get creative.  Under the electronic catalogues, you can search by author, subject, keyword, title, format, and a whole host of other things depending on the creativity of the database designer.  You can also search the catalogue from home, or anywhere in the country or even the world.  But while these catalogues are infinitely more powerful than their predecessors, they’re also more expensive to create and maintain.

Let’s add in the fact that most public libraries now keep public computers with internet access.  As the internet becomes more and more important in our daily lives for everything from gathering information to filling out job applications, the gap between those with internet access and those without will become insurmountable for those on the bottom.  Except, of course, for the areas where you can walk into your public library and take care of all your internet needs with tax dollars you’ve already paid.  Those dollars, I should add, are likely less than the price of a computer and twelve months of internet.  On the flip side, computers and internet access are new costs for libraries to cover.  Many also offer free computer classes, ranging from turning on a computer, to advanced word processing, Excel, and Photoshop.

I could go on, but I think you get my point.  In closing, I’ll leave you with a few links to explore:

On Monday, Diane Rehm of NPR’s WAMU 88.5 did a show entitled ‘The Changing Role of Libraries.’  It is available to listen to online.  Listen here.

The Huffington Post ran an article last week about what a library meant to a town in New Jersey, how they used it, and how they saved it.  Read about it here.

And finally, there’s a wonderful advocacy group called Geek the Library.  They’ve got a lot of information up about what libraries across the country do, their impact on communities, and how they are funded.  Learn more here.


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