Wednesday, May 04, 2011

10 Ways Libraries Matter in a Digital Age

--by Greg Landgraf (American Libraries, May 4, 2011)

After “10 Reasons Why the Internet is No Substitute for a Library,” a 2001 article in American Libraries, received some unwelcome attention two weeks ago, we sought your feedback to help create an updated version. Based on reader comments and staff discussions, we’ve drafted this list of reasons why libraries matter in a digital age. We welcome your additions to this list.

Libraries serve the disenfranchised. You don’t need to be the proper age, or the proper race, or have enough money, or know the right politicians, or believe in the “right” things to use the library’s resources.

Libraries are a gathering place. The physical structures and the programs within them make possible social and cultural discourse with friends and strangers. “They are a safe place of education where our masses, young and old, can have a moment of peace or an impassioned dialogue exchanged with others,” writes one commenter.

Libraries are a first step to literacy. For our youngest patrons, libraries offer story hours, book talks, and reading-related play to spark the imagination and create a sense of wonder. Thanks to this work, words can change from indecipherable and frustrating squiggles to sources of joy and inspiration. Libraries also provide needed support for immigrants and those for whom English is a second language.

Libraries are there for all ages. For young children, libraries offer storytimes, beginning books, and creative programming. Seniors can enjoy books on their passions, classes, and technology. And libraries provide services to all regardless of what stage of life—whether finding a job, buying their first house, learning a new skill, taking up a new hobby, or any of a thousand other things.

Libraries help people use the internet. … “The ‘libraries vs. internet’ concept is foolish because libraries work WITH the internet to bring patrons information,” writes commenter Stacey. “We provide internet access for those who cannot afford it… . We provide research assistance to patrons who know how to type, but not how to formulate searches or choose keywords properly.”

And libraries help people use the internet better. Accessing the internet is easy. Accessing the full depth of the internet is hard. “I’ve met a lot of people (patrons and students) who thought the Internet was a perfectly good substitute for the library—until they realized they were drowning in ‘information’ and still hadn’t found what they needed,” writes commenter M. Mori. “I help those people by teaching them better search techniques, how to search the ‘deep web’ (where commercial search engines can’t go), and ways to evaluate the good from the bad among the resources they select.”

Libraries are interested in your privacy. Libraries have a long history of defending patron privacy—a history that is supported by confidentiality laws in almost every state. We don’t collect hackable lists of credit card numbers or broadcast our patrons’ whereabouts to the world.

Libraries are hubs for preserving the past. Digital libraries are wondrous, but they exist, for the most part, because of the local and world treasures safeguarded by brick-and-mortar libraries, which keep them safe and accessible for future generations. We also work to help our patrons preserve their own materials.

Libraries are there in a crisis. After the recent tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Tuscaloosa Public Library offered college students a means to communicate with friends and family. When Hurricane Ike struck Houston September 13, 2008, the Central Library reopened within three days to help residents contact insurance companies and file federal aid applications. Libraries belong to their communities and do what it takes in times of need.

Libraries offer the human touch. As commenter Pat G. writes, “the interface between a librarian and the client is priceless. Patrons who seek help in selecting a good book could use online reviews, but nothing beats the ‘Try this one, I’ve read it and I think you’ll like it’ approach.” Librarians get to know their patrons and offer service personalized to them.