Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why public libraries matter

I got an email today from a friend, the managing editor of a newspaper out even further west than Colorado. He just wrote me about their local library, which is in desperate need of a new building. But what's going 'round in the town lately, what's picking up steam, is the idea that the library is obsolete, that "libraries are dinosaurs and the Internet is all we need now and in the future." He asked for some talking points to spin into editorials. I wrote him this, which reprises some of the other things I've written about lately, but I think starts to integrate into a nice campaign.

First, the reports of library decline are wildly exaggerated. Just to draw from some Colorado stats, more people visited Colorado libraries (58 million) in 2004 than traveled through Denver International Airport (42.4 million). In 2004, Coloradans borrowed more items from libraries (96.5 million) than purchased Powerball tickets (80.4 million). Attendance at public library programs surpassed 1.4 million in 2004 -- equal to selling out Invesco Field at Mile High 20 times. Annually, there are a more visits to libraries than all sporting events COMBINED. (
In the state of Colorado, 2 out of 3 people have library cards. In Douglas County, you can find one in 4 out of 5 households.

Second, Google isn't all it's cracked up to be, being neither as comprehensive nor as trustworthy as many library electronic subscriptions. (This begs for the moment the whole reductive argument that libraries are ONLY about answering short questions.) Here's a recent Denver Post Colorado Voices column from one of our own employees.

Third, it is certainly true that the Internet is turning into a powerful information utility. But around the nation, libraries are often the only place people have to gain access to it. This issue is called "the digital divide" -- without public libraries, some people never make it over the pass.

Fourth, libraries are a terrific return on the investment. There have been a host of studies about this. Here's one I wrote about for Douglas County and Colorado:

Here's one done in Wisconsin:

Bottom line: whenever these studies happen, we can be sure that for every $1 invested in public libraries, the community gets AT LEAST $3-5 back. How does that compare with YOUR portfolio of investments?

Fifth, libraries have been found to be a tremendously valuable tool in the development of neighborhoods and cities. The Urban Libraries Council, based in Chicago, just released a report about this.

Some of these findings made such an impact on Mayor Daley, that he has come up with a formula to revitalize neighborhoods: first step, a public library, to generate the right kind of traffic, to put eyes on the street, to call out the children as an important asset. And it works.

Sixth, and the one that really matters, is that libraries change lives. I'm a pretty tech savvy guy, and spend a lot of time on the Internet. But I haven't read a single entire book on the screen, have you? Has anyone you know?

It's easy to get caught up in the sexy stuff around technology, but I don't know anyone who says "Google changed my life." But in libraries, every single day, quite aside from all those folks we've helped find jobs or livelihoods (through resume or business plan writing), there are young people who discover lifelong passions, and adults who find solace and escape in fiction. Through everything from health databases to comic books, we've saved lives both physically and mentally.

And let's not forget that the children's storytime is the single most important strategy our society has to turn out literate and empathetic citizens. (I'm not kidding: we're working on a study now to prove that attendance at storytimes, and calling out the important steps of early literacy, has a marked effect not only on a child's readiness for learning, but on the ability to put him or herself in someone else's shoes; one predictable outcome of immersion in literature is compassion.)

Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Book, used to say that public libraries were the only thing that our society really did for smart kids. Question: do we want more smart kids?

Dude, you write newspapers for a living. You know, I hope, that a great deal depends on people who have the skills of literacy, and use them. Your own industry, for instance.

So good for you for stepping into the fray and speaking up for libraries. Putting money into our INTELLECTUAL infrastructure isn't just smart, it's the right thing to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make a beautiful set of points, sir. It's a very handy reference for me, for those inevitable times where a family member or friend questions the logic of becoming a librarian in this day and age. - Welcome

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