Friday, January 11, 2013

Why do we have public libraries?

Some (most, probably) will think I'm a little slow-witted asking this question.  The "educated" technophile might say public libraries are an anachronism and that everything needed research-wise or recreational reading-wise can be obtained online or through Amazon.  The hard-line libertarians would most assuredly say that the money spent on them would be better utilized by the individual to choose to spend on their own education if she/he so desired.  The cynic might say that we (society) have to provide SOME place for the homeless and disturbed to hang out.  Yet other people never even think about the library as a useful tool at their disposal, having had at some point in their lives a bad experience with fines or fees or even SHHHHHH! ... librarians.

There are some days where I can at least see the reasoning for some of these stances.  I have to remember that I have a vested interest in this whole concept.  And yet...

Many of the same social conditions that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that were the impetus for creating free public libraries, exist today.  In fact, poor educational level, poverty, sub-par work skills and the accompanying lack of upward mobility have intensified since I became a librarian in the mid-1990s.
Back to the title of this article: Why do we need public libraries?  Early childhood literacy.  If I could say nothing else about them, if I could answer in only one way, this is a role public libraries fill and succeed in like no other "free" public institution.  Study after study has shown that the single most important factor to success in school is mastery of basic math and reading skills by Kindergarten.  Public libraries have been working diligently at this for decades.  Bring your child to story time, check out some books to read with her at home and BAM!  You've received a huge ROI on your tax dollar because your child is positioned to succeed in school and ultimately in life.

Honestly, we need as many avenues to literacy, competency, life skills and work skills as we can possibly manage in our current world.  The gap between the rich and poor has grown once again to an enormous chasm.  While libraries need to remain relevant by adapting to new media, they must continue to focus on their strengths.  First, the librarians and specialists that can instill the love of reading and learning at a young age and provide support and training throughout the lives of our patrons. Second, the power of being free to all who want our services.  Third, the willingness to explore those new tools as they come around and to bend them to our will - helping our patrons grow and learn.

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