Guess who loves libraries now

Future Tense for Dec. 31, 2007

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

More than half of all Americans visited a library in the past year and -- surprise! -- the biggest users were young adults, aged 18 to 30, the group known as Generation Y.

"These findings turn our thinking about libraries upside down," said Leigh Estabrook, a professor emerita at the University of Illinois and co-author of a report on the survey results. "Internet use seems to create an information hunger," she said, "and it is information-savvy young people who are most likely to visit libraries."

In fact, Internet users were more than twice as likely to patronize libraries, compared to non-Internet users, according to the survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and announced Sunday.

The report will be welcome news for libraries and the people who love them. Only five years ago, when I completed my term as president of a public library's board of directors in Iowa, there wasn't much cause for optimism about libraries' future. Our budget had been slashed, we could barely afford to buy books and some city officials were quietly urging me to cut the library's hours because "no one uses libraries any more."

We weren't suffering alone. Out in California, for instance, the city of Salinas announced plans to close its three public libraries, including the Cesar Chavez Library with its unique collection of about 600 books on Chicano and Mexican culture. Imagine: no public libraries in John Steinbeck’s hometown.

Librarians here and abroad wondered whether there would be any public libraries in 20 years. After all, with so much information available on the Internet, and with computers’ prices within reach of anyone who can afford a color TV, why spend money to house “dead-tree databases,” as one of my friends cynically refers to information printed on paper? Here in Mount Airy would our beautiful public library someday be nothing more than a granite mausoleum?

I admit I've had a lifelong love of libraries. In my Chinese-checkered career — I’ve packed alcohol products and filled auto-parts orders, run a $650,000 computer network and worked as the editor of two daily newspapers -- I look back most fondly to my first job. For two years I worked at a library and was paid to be around books. By the time I moved on I could quote the Dewey Decimal System to three decimal places.

That said, I also confess a long-time addiction to the Internet. Having masses of the world’s information at my fingertips intoxicates me. The other day I needed an excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.” Within 60 seconds, it scrolled out on my monitor. No need to run to the library; no need to riffle through an old card catalog; no need for a Kleenex to stop my sneezing after I blew the dust off a rarely used volume from the stacks.

The World Wide Web is quick and convenient, but I missed the serendipitous pleasure that comes from holding a book and finding not only “Ulysses,” but also Tennyson’s stirring “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” You never know what you’ll find in a book; you start a voyage of discovery every time you begin browsing a library's shelves.

Books themselves aren’t going away anytime soon. To the contrary, they’re easier to find. This is a direct result of the digital revolution. Services like Amazon and Alibris make it easy to locate and buy books. Google, Microsoft, Project Gutenberg and other organizations are digitizing whole books and putting them online for free or cheap public access.

Many libraries have undertaken their own efforts make their collections accessible in digital form. The Internet isn't seen as a threat by librarians whose whole purpose in life is to give people access to knowledge, whether it’s on paper or in a digital file. At a minimum, most libraries have put their card catalogs on the Internet so anyone sitting at home can point their browser to www.nwrl.org, for example, and see whether the Northwest Regional Library System has any of Tennyson’s poetry (and, as I just checked, the system has 13 books, including several at Mount Airy).

Now, to almost everyone's surprise, comes the Pew report that finds computers may be libraries' salvation. More than two-thirds of the library visitors (in all age groups) said they used computers while at the library. Sixty-five percent said they looked up information on the Internet while at the library. Almost as many used computers to check into the library's resources. Anecdotally, Mount Airy Public Library Pat Gwyn agrees with those findings; she says the library's computers almost always are fully occupied.

Professor Estabrook pointed out that some public libraries now offer virtual homework help. The Mount Airy Public Library is among many in North Carolina that provide free access to huge databases including magazines, encyclopedias and special-interest publications. Some libraries even loan video-game software in addition to DVDs, videotapes, audio books and CD-ROMs.

Given the evident popularity of public libraries, you might wonder why Salinas ddecided to close its facilities. Well, the fact is that the California state legislature withheld vital funds for its city governments. That, plus higher costs for pension plans and health insurance, forced Salinas to cut $15 million from a $60-million budget. It eliminated police and fire fighters' jobs, reduced street work and closed recreation centers. The city manager said Salinas made every possible cut before finally, in desperation, deciding to close the libraries. That’s how much the city leaders valued the public libraries.

I also must mention what happened at my old library after we moved to North Carolina. The legislature authorized people in Iowa cities to vote on a special property tax exclusively for the support of public libraries. The measure passed overwhelmingly back in my old home., ensuring the public library a steady stream of financial support.

Inevitably, I suppose, the city commissioners began coveting the library's good fortune. They cut the city's previous allocation of general property taxes to the library. And now I understand they're threatening to do it again.

I hope my old library's board president gets a copy of today's Pew report and waves it in mayor's face. City commissioners might be able to ignore aging, book-loving Baby Boomers like myself -- eventually, we'll go away -- but with Generation Y coming along behind us, any city officials should think twice and then a third time before reducing financial support for libraries ... in the future.

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Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com. His e-mail address is steve@stevewelker.net.

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/60. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net