I guess I was a strange kid (two words that form a redundancy, parents might say). In some ways I was like the young character Brick on the ABC-TV sitcom, “The Middle.”
In case you haven’t caught any first-season episodes of that very funny show, Brick is a kid with limited social skills who is at home in his own world which is often under his bed at night with a flashlight, reading a book. He sometimes takes refuge there after having been forced by his parents to interact with other kids, to whom he often breaks off contact with his pet phrase, “OK, I’m done talking with you now.”
I grew up in the day when kids could actually walk or ride bikes to neighborhood schools without being shepherded by parents worried about child abductors. It was about a 15-minute walk, and 7 minutes into it, I’d pass the public library. One day on a return trip home, I decided to open the doors and walk in.
From that day forward, I was hooked on reading.
The public library became a routine stop on my afternoon walks home as I discovered the other world of books. I devoured the Black Stallion stories, I went back in time to enter the world of Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp, and I met the Hardy Boys and followed them through some 23 adventures before the series gave out (happily for young readers, it’s been revived).
These memories rushed in this week as I’ve been thinking about how our libraries are weathering the sometimes stormy and unpredictable world of the virtual unknown: the age of the Internet and Web 2.0 media which, conventional wisdom might dictate, ushers in the end of the need for libraries at all. Frankly, the story is not receiving much attention from the nation’s news media.
Why go sit in the restrictive and bland atmosphere of a library to read or do research, when you can do it on your computer sitting out by the pool or on a hammock in the backyard?
Puncturing conventional wisdom
Happily, conventional wisdom is often wrong, and that is the case with the value of libraries. This is not to say everyone — most notably politicians — recognize that value.
I do a lot of traveling and work in different states, but I have a home in the small town of Ashland, Ohio, pop. 25,000 and home to a good private university. This town has a great public library, not because of a modern facade of glass and steel (it settles for the old-fashioned look instead), but by its dedication to serving the literary and information needs of the community.
On most days it is hard to find a parking space in the library parking lot, and you may have to park across the alley at the local funeral home instead. Once inside, the place is buzzing. There’s activity in the periodical room, over in the children’s book wing, in the study carels, and in the stacks themselves.
The computer magnet
But the magnet that draws many patrons is the dozen or so computer stations that often have a waiting list of users. Hard as it is for some technophiles to believe, there are still some people who can’t afford Internet hookups at home and rely instead on the local libraries where online usage is free. Even those who do have home computers find it easier to go online during the day at the libary when they are out and about.
Nevertheless, in a move that has been replicated many times in other states across America, Ohio politicians thought they found an answer to the state budget crisis by cutting the budget to the public libraries, forcing the Ashland Library to lay off staff and severely cut its operating hours during the week.
The legislators were using the conventional wisdom of, “Who uses libraries anymore, anyway?” They, of course, were wrong. All that had to do to discover they were wrong was to visit a local library and see it in action. But lawmakers are too busy lawmaking to do such shoe-leather research, so they let their assumptions inform their thinking.
Library fights back
Even as the state was cutting the budget, however, the Ashland Public Library had organized a successful petition drive to keep the library open. It then made a pitch to the Ashland City Council to put a tax measure on the ballot amounting to a few cents per resident to step in and save the library, restoring it to full operating service. The voters of Ashland wasted no time in approving that measure, this hometown library on Claremont Street is back in business full-time, and the parking lot is still full.
The popularity of the Ashland Public Library is consistent with a recent national study on library usage. Even though the Web is increasingly important as a primary information source for most Americans, most adults — and a lot of kids — still use libraries, the study found. The survey was conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the University of Illinois, and it looked at overall library use plus library use for solving problems related to subjects like education, taxes, job searches, and health care. The study, and related stories, can be found at www.pewinternet.org/topic/Libraries.aspx.
The reseachers found that Internet users were more than twice as likely to patronize libraries as non-Internet users and that more than two-thirds of library visitors in all age groups use computers during their trips to the library.
Job searchers are new patrons
Across the county, librarians are reporting increased library use because of the depressed economy as job-searchers go to libraries to use their computers to find work. Here’s how Grand Rapids, Michigan TV station WZZM reported that phenomenon on Feb. 1:
“Even though it was Super Bowl Sunday, libraries across the country were still finding more and more patrons because of the economy. Libraries are reporting the highest computer usage ever because they’re free and offer a portal to potential jobs, giving people a chance to survive the economy.
“Asante Cain, a manager at the Grand Rapids Public Library, says business is booming with people coming in for a myriad of reasons. “To file unemployment claims or to work on resumes,’ says Cain. ‘We have a small business development center for people who are starting their own businesses.”
According to the Georgia Public Library System alone, 38 out of 58 public library systems in that state showed an increase in the number of users of electronic resources, adding a total of nearly 1.4 million users. In all, more than 13 million people used public-access Internet terminals at Georgia’s public libraries in one year alone.
Statistics also show that the traditional use of libraries is still strong in the areas of hard-copy book checkouts and attendance at public forums and culture conferences. Many libraries find ways of subsidizing dwindling state revenues by conducting periodic book sales or even maintaining standing book stores within the library.
Back at the Ashland, Ohio, Public Library, there are these uses as well. But then it’s also Wednesday afternoon and time for the “Sit, Stay, and Read” program for kids, young and old, where you can read your favorite story to a therapy dog who is more than willing to listen.
And, by the way, Tuesday night’s showing of “North by Northwest” was a big hit upstairs in the library’s free theater.