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Beyond books: Why you should check out your public library

Updated: May 9, 2012 8:12AM



For many of us, the public library always will be synonymous with books.

The books drew us to the library in the first place, helped us discover new worlds — real and imaginary — beyond our day-to-day experiences.

Libraries continue to embody that same spirit of search and discovery, but in a manner that has been transformed as dramatically as the way we generate, share and consume information. They make this new digital era available to all Americans.

In Chicago, for example, an innovative space at the main public library called YOUmedia lets any teen with a city library card have in-house access to computers, plus video and audio recording equipment to create their own content with the help of a mentor.

At another YOUmedia space in Miami, workshops help teens think critically and creatively about their lives by teaching them to publish an autobiographical digital story or to visualize their favorite books.

In a world where information is increasingly available, learning to analyze it, create it and make it your own is a valued skill.

For many teens, the library might be the only place they can get online and be connected to the digital world.

They are in good company. One-third of Americans — mostly older, rural and-or poor — lack broadband access at home and can’t participate fully in contemporary life, much less in the $8 trillion global Internet-enabled economy.

Imagine the difficulty of finding work today without access to the Internet, especially when 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept online applications.

According to a University of Washington study, in 2009, more than 20 million people used public library resources as part of their job searches, with half of them filling out applications or submitting resumes. Those figures only have increased as libraries nationwide have added services for job seekers.

Beyond providing access, librarians are helping Americans navigate the digital landscape. Classes focus on everything from how to operate an e-reader to how to publish your own eBook.

Libraries in Alaska, Oklahoma and other states are adding video conferencing capabilities. Some libraries even will connect you with a digital mentor to strengthen your skills.

Library services no longer are only contained in the physical library. Book mobiles have been supplemented by mobile computer labs — visiting minority communities in St. Paul to teach digital literacy classes in Spanish, Hmong and Somali, for example.

In Dover, Mass., the library has installed matrix bar codes around town that link signs at the market and playground to community information and services.

Seattle Public Library offers live chats with librarians 24 hours a day, getting answers to reference questions and live homework help.

The Knight, MacArthur and Gates foundations support public libraries because they help people acquire the skills to become lifelong learners, compete in the global economy and provide the knowledge to participate in civic life. Libraries are good investments.

Yet, some communities are cutting library budgets, forcing reductions in service just when Americans most need to deepen the digital and information skills that libraries foster.

This National Library Week, rediscover your library, as a portal to other worlds — and your own community.

Check out all the library has to offer — and consider what you might have to offer it.

It’s no longer a place where you go to learn about someone else’s past, but to create your own future.

Paula Ellis, vice president,
Strategic Initiatives, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation;

Deborah Jacobs, director,
Global Libraries Program,
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation;

Julia Stasch, vice president of U.S. Programs, MacArthur Foundation



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