By 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.