Saturday, June 22, 2013

Public libraries are part of the Information Age

It is a half-baked idea to believe that our public libraries are obsolete. To believe that the Internet is making a redundancy of brick-and-mortar learning is akin to tossing out our ovens simply because our microwaves can also heat things.

The ability to boil water, however, does not immediately translate into being useful for something more elaborate, like Baked Alaska. Likewise, pointing and clicking may be great for someone who is looking up who starred in what or who sang what. This superficial ability to find fast facts, however, should not be confused for the deeper challenge of performing scholarly research.

Just because we have computers, tablets, smart phones and other devices that can access what appears to be an infinite source of knowledge, we ignore the quality of the information in favor or the quantity of what we think are facts. According to the Digital Library Federation (DLF), less than seven percent of online information meets the standard of being appropriate for educational or scholarly purposes.

Factor in to this how the DLF says that the average college undergraduate may be using search engines to conduct a comprehensive search but results in only a ‘surface’ web that consists of only .03 percent of the actual Internet. The other 99.97 percent of the Internet goes unread, including journals, periodicals and other publications that are central to research.

This global approach to fact finding actually enhances the need for local public library systems. Special collections in many libraries provide access to rare or unique media (e.g. photographs, newspapers, archives) that could not be either located through a search engine or purchased for an e-reader.

Libraries have the ability to loan these selected items to other libraries for public use or share through public databases. This is a free aspect of public libraries that would be a costly service for someone to maintain the same ties and services with the number of institutions that work with our libraries.

Public libraries have already survived their predicted demise. Bookstore chains went the ‘big box’ route with stores that became new gathering places for readers. Their coffee shops and comfortable chairs, however, may have invited a lingering customer to read a couple of magazines. I grew up at a time when it was taboo to pick up a magazine at the convenience store.

“What do you think we are? A library?” said the cashier. Then, if we wanted to read it, we had to buy it. Bookstores became libraries in that customers became used to previewing a book at the bookstore and then bought it online.

As the large bookstore chains close, with them goes the physical space that readers have for discussing books, meeting authors and sharing ideas. The public libraries were doing this all along and will continue to serve communities in this capacity – including reading to young children, organizing youth interest groups, teaching important job skills or promoting literacy.

The biggest misconception in the debate over the relevance of public libraries is that everybody has Internet access. It seems like everybody has a smart phone, a tablet or a laptop within reach. According to The New York Times, however, one-third of Americans do not subscribe to Internet services. This may account for the 26 percent of respondents in a Pew survey who visited their public library for wireless or computer services. It looks like our public libraries continue to be necessary in the lives of those who do not have the means of accessing information. This is why the free public library movement began and why it will continue to serve our community. With a Pew survey saying that over 91 percent of Americans believe that public libraries are important to their communities, the proof is in the pudding.

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