My View: Why libraries matter more than ever
April 13th, 2012
03:10 PM ET

My View: Why libraries matter more than ever

Courtesy Edis JurcysBy Molly Raphael, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Molly Raphael is President of the American Library Association, the oldest and largest library association in the world. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information for all. This week, National Library Week, the ALA spotlights the valuable contributions of our nation’s libraries and library workers.

Anyone who has visited a library in the past few years will not be surprised to learn that demand for library services has increased significantly. With the growing need for access to digital and online information, including e-government services, continuing education resources and employment opportunities, libraries are essential in communities, large and small, throughout the country.

Last year, 1.5 billion library visitors checked out more than 2.4 billion items. Visit the “learning commons” of a college or university library, and you will find it full of students.  The same is true for K-12 school libraries as students recognize the importance of learning how to become “information literate” as part of their basic education.

Yet, many question why we need libraries when we have instant access to information on the Internet.

As the president of the American Library Association (ALA), I often receive questions on the relevance of libraries when information can be obtained so easily in digital form. I believe questioning the need for libraries and the professionals who staff them is like questioning the need for the air that we breathe.

We need air to survive, just as we need libraries not just to survive but to thrive in an era filled with economic uncertainty, technological illiteracy and information overload.  Technology continues to shape commerce, education and social interactions, in our global world.  Libraries, which provide equitable access for all, play a key role in leveling the playing field in our communities.  Look at the life stories of our most admired leaders in every field of endeavor who came from very humble beginnings, and you will almost always find libraries were key to their access to the Great American Dream.

The traditional notion of libraries continues to thrive in the age of Google and Facebook, but libraries are also transforming lives by providing patrons with the tools needed to compete and thrive in a 21st century marketplace.

The public still has no-fee access to all types of information, with traditional services enhanced by technology.

That’s enhanced - not replaced.  Libraries have always embraced new forms and formats such as videos, DVD’s, audio formats, and now downloadable resources.  More than 65% of libraries report that they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities.  Thousands rely on free services including basic training in how to use computers and software products as well as access to employment databases and digital media.  More than 87% of public libraries provide free formal and informal technology training to library patrons, often partnering with local nonprofits.

To make good decisions, we depend on good information. The Internet can never replace the expertise of library staff. Anyone who has received an overwhelming number of hits searching the Web understands what it means to have a highly trained information navigator. Why wade through hundreds, if not thousands, of possible resources when a librarian can connect you quickly with the most valuable information to meet your needs?

Right now, libraries are part of the solution when a community is struggling economically.  Libraries continue to design and offer programs customized for their local communities’ needs, providing residents with guidance, including sessions with career advisers, workshops in resume writing and interviewing, job-search resources and connections with outside agencies that offer training and job placement. Each day an estimated 300,000 people receive job-seeking help at public libraries.  More than 74% of libraries offer software and other resources to help patrons create resumes and employment materials, and 72% of libraries report that staff helped patrons complete online job applications.

Patrons turn to libraries for access to ebooks and even eReaders.  eBooks are available at more than 67% of libraries, up 12% from just two years ago. Libraries don’t just offer access to digital content but also offer demonstrations on how to download library eBooks or eFlicks to personal devices. And more than 27% of public libraries offer eReaders for check out.

Most importantly, libraries are located in nearly every community across the country.

I cannot imagine a world without libraries, when so many of us rely on them to make sense of the technology-driven world in which we live.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Molly Raphael.

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soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. OracleDad

    Every Tuesday for the past 3 years I have taken my daughter to the Library...she is 4...she listens to story time...checks out books....I read and have read to her every day of her life. There are some things you cannot gain via the web...for my daughter she looks forward to going every week. Our library consistently features local artists works on their walls so there is culture to be gained by visiting, a library is a way to keep plugged into what is going on in the community outside of the virtual world.....you actually have to encounter real people. LOL. Anyhow, by taking my daughter I have rediscovered what a great resource we have in our libraries.

    April 26, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  2. Leila

    A library is a "learning center"; it reinforces a culture of education. The environment is conducive to study, reflection, quiet time, inquiry, and brainstorming. Therefore, it is essential to every community. At home on our PCs, we are all too distracted. We are distracted by food, TV, our pets, our chores, etc. Meanwhile, at the library we can focus exclusively on learning and reading. Let's not be quick to devalue our libraries. That will just send a dangerous message to our youth. How many teenagers do you know who REALLY use their PCs for reference and inquiry? Having a place that has REAL books with pages and everything (Fitzgerald, 1925), is healthy for children and adults.

    April 25, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  3. College paying parent

    As we have just gotten our second young adult set for a fall semester of college, I can say every college we looked out highlighted the library, every single school.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  4. "new school" teacher

    Please don't close real libraries! I started reading Stephen King in the sixth grade b/c there were no good books in the school library. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that clowns are scary!

    April 21, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  5. stefon bernard

    From what I know libraries are a place where you go to read up on old and new information. You can find a lot of historical things about the pass people that was in that city you live in or town. Also since time is moving on and history is being updated you can find about this that's happening now all around the word. It's like if you can make a TV show out of it most likely it's going to have a book.

    April 18, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  6. PaintedLady14

    My sister and I grew up just down the street from the library. There were only four kids in our neighborhood and the library was our safe haven. We'd ride our bikes to the local burger place for ice cream, go to the library, then play outside. The librarians all knew us by name because we'd get our summer reading lists done in a week! It was such a part of my childhood that I can't image life without access to a library. Even as an adult, libraries play an important role in my life. I was deciding between two colleges and the one with the best library won out. After college, when looking for an apartment, my husband and I wanted to make sure we were in close proximity to a local branch. When I have kids, I will make sure they have a strong relationship with the library. You can't go wrong with reading and libraries just hold so many possibilities for knowledge!

    April 16, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  7. Josie

    The library here has an amazing youth department and childrens department. Thankfully on a completely different level. A lot of the kids in the town go there to spend time with their friends, do homework and just read. That is completely different from when I was a kid. The only ones that go to the library were the nerds and the unpopular kids...it was my safe haven. I can't imagine living in a place without a public library....it would be so strange.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  8. Gaill

    Libraries are of no useful purpose. They burden the property tax system. Stop being a cheapskate and buy your own PC, internet service, etc.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Mikeinsjc

      Sure, and I'll bet you're the type that has to download an app to figure out how to ride a horse. That's H-O-R-S-E. Google it.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • martylafl*

      Scrooge.

      April 16, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • Shirley

      What about those who can't afford it? I'm pretty sure there are plenty of people who need libraries, especially with the increasing use of technology in society.

      April 16, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Adrienne

      My library operates within a state-wide lending system, which allows me to request and receive extraordinarily obscure books that are often only available in college libraries, located very far away from me. Without these materials, I would not be able to research and write my own book. It would be better if my library was able to subscribe to WorldCat, but that is not possible.
      Perhaps you need to broaden your horizons, Gaill. The library is not simply for John Grisham novels.

      April 16, 2012 at 6:57 am |
      • Thoughts by Jamie

        I like John Grisham novels! ;) Without my library I wouldn't be able to read the one about a lawyer who does something in a Southern Courthouse!!!

        In all seriousness though, Libraries have been and will hopefully always be storage places of knowledge, wisdom and information. I have a somewhat romanticized view of librarians as the gatekeepers of knowledge in a world that is all to quickly abandoning a pursuit of knowledge.

        April 18, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • sarah

      there are no words for such an ignorant and ill-informed statement as this, Gaill. well, there are words, but not appropriate.

      April 17, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Jac

      How many millions are out of work? And an out of work paycheck does not provide for computers and internet. How many people cannot pay their mortgage? and how many have lost their homes? Yeah, they can still have technology and the internet. And entertainment? all those broke, out-of-work people can go out to eat, go to movies, visit bookstores to buy movies, books, CDs. And of course they can use their new cars to do all those things. Your comment shows immense ignorance of reality and an insensitivity and arrogance that borders on stupidity.

      April 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Alice Reisman

      Honey, you should tell that to the 70-something man who left my library computer lab yesterday with HOPE. He's "a little slow" and wants to get a job in a local grocery store (very small and very local) and he needs help with the computer. He also doesn't have an e-mail account. Guess what?? He'll be back with someone to help him learn how to use the computer and get an e-mail account. The computer lab staff will assist as much as possible but, unfortunately, we just don't have the staff right now to sit with him and teach it all to him. BUT WE ARE HERE TO HELP HIM AS MUCH AS WE CAN.

      April 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • AeireM

      Your ignorance is showing. I bet you have never been to a library.

      April 24, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  9. furndoc

    I frequent a library in Indiana, in a town of about 32,000 people. the library has a huge active children's department and a young adult department that has video nights for teens, showing films of a violent nature that require parent's consent to see: why teens should come into a library when they can see it all on the net is a mystery. the purpose of all this (giving the public what they want) is to draw the next generation into the library. This library lends out videos/dvds/cds free by the thousands, many more so than books. As for the future, since this trend will probgably continue, the culture of books as an incentive to visit libraries will be on life support.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  10. Wills von Kaphsky

    This is in regards to the 'American Dream' comment. My grandfather was an immigrant from central Europe in the 1880's. There were no public libraries where they came from.His parents spoke little english and he started school 2 months after they arrived. They lived in a very large city with a great library system. Grandfather and his sister were only able to get up to speed and keep up in school because of the programs their local library branch had to help them adjust to a new language. They both ramained passionate readers all their lives. Grandfather became a professional and his children the same. Great aunt married a professional and raised very succesful children. To come to America with nothing, not speaking the language, having almost no money, yet haveing access to all the knowledge in the world for free. That is the american dream. I am now a library trustee.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  11. pmv

    I love libraries, grew up in them and depended on them but this article just made me sad. Teaching people to use computers will die in 20 to 30 years (everyone will be literate if they have access to a public school) and then those who don't have access (read homeless, poor) who rely on the library will frighten away people who can have access in the comfort of their homes. If libraries want to attack the young, you need to think social media and entertainment. There has to be something there for them to go. My teenagers think the library is full of creepy people – what a change from when I was young.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:31 am |
  12. jake

    I love libraries but I won't take my children to visit our public library, not when there are constantly homeless people in and around the library viewing adult material on the computers. IMO, there need to be children only libraries or at the least- libraries free of computers and internet access. In large cities like Los Angeles there are too many homeless and low income men with nothing better to do at 1 pm then hang out at libraries doing god knows what. So my kids go to a bookstore, where it's safe for them to be more than 2 feet away from me.

    April 15, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • Stephanie

      Do you not accompany your children to the library? You sound as though you are a few feet away from them in bookstores but in libraries......? Bookstores and libraries are open to everyone and you have a false sense of security if you think you have a safer environment in a store.

      April 15, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • almightymoderate

      Sounds like San Antonio's main library.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  13. Lorna Flynn

    American's treasure, the libraries. It is not a common thing worldwide.

    April 14, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  14. cary4

    I live overseas, and one of the things are miss MOST are the public libraries in the US. A beautiful environment in every sense...the idea that digital books could replace REAL books, those wonderful objects that you can feel the weight of in your hand, is repugnant

    April 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • PaintedLady14

      I agree cary4. And I'll never understand people who claim to "hate reading!" Do they hate thinking and using their imagination as well???

      April 16, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  15. ZingORama

    Love the Library! I am so thankful to have free access to all the media, I volunteer two days a week to give back some of what I have been given. What a great place to spend some time!

    April 14, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  16. think again

    Great article. Look up their guide of NOT TO READ BOOKS.Helps with kids

    April 14, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  17. David

    Libraries are vital to the community and it is a shame that they are so poorly funded. I am both computer literate and fortunate enough to be able to afford to purchase books. However, I still utilize my local library. My kids love going and we make it a point of going once a week as a family.

    April 14, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  18. elizabeth

    As a kid in the 60s, the public library was my biggest source of entertainment – we didn't have TV (we were poor), and I would check out the maximum number of books allowed every time. I read my way around the world – everything I could get my hands on! It paid off with a National Merit Scholarship and Presidential Scholarship when I headed to college. I still read several books a week, and I count the librarians as a huge asset. Free public libraries are a hallmark of U.S. life. I missed them desperately when I lived overseas. I point kids to the libraries every chance I get – what a gift!

    April 14, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  19. the truther

    if all kids were atheists, then they would go to the library more often

    April 14, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • mema

      Um what? What does that have to do with this article. Im christian as well as my children and we all utilize our public library. Get a life atheists.

      April 15, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  20. Bruce M Dichter

    I could not agree more.

    April 13, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  21. asiaticman7

    Nicely written, but the part about the "american dream" you can miss me with that. As a library science graduate student myself I complete agree having the expertise of a librarian there to help a patron nagivate is essential; especially living in this information age. Knowing how to understand the difference between credible and non credibe information is very important. Lastly, I can honestly say libraries have played a major role in my life and will continue to. peace

    April 13, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  22. blmathew1955

    I will know the American Dream is dead when there are no longer any public libraries left.

    April 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm |