Picture a public library. You might have a childhood memory of standing on your tiptoes to flick through a dusty card catalog. Or maybe you recall the first time you balanced a stack of books on your bicycle handlebars for a risky ride home.
Public libraries have been pillars of communities since before the birth of our nation. From being the foundation of literacy to offering social opportunity, the public library has a special place in the heart of every citizen.
The modern age of local government has been enveloped in the dark shroud of never-ending budget cuts. This has directly affected the core of the public library system, which has been forced into the Darwinian model of embracing upheaval in order to compete.
As we reported in the StateTech Winter 2013 issue, adaptation through innovation will be essential to the survival of the public library system in the United States:
Libraries are about so much more than books: They are about access to knowledge and, in 2013, digital information, which means access via mobile devices and the cloud. While cynics would have you believe that libraries are a thing of the past, the truth is that they simply are evolving.
The reality is that technology will be the saving grace of the public library system. Public libraries continue to be the primary source of computer access and continuing education for underserved members of the community. Without these resources, the digital divide will only increase and imperil the success of every community.
The New York–based Center for an Urban Future published a report that highlights the challenges and opportunities facing the public library system in the digital age:
As more and more New Yorkers turn to digital books, Wikipedia and other online tools for information and entertainment, there is a growing sense that the age of the public library is over. But, in reality, New York City’s public libraries are more essential than ever.
These trends are grounded in the new realities of today’s knowledge economy, where it is difficult to achieve economic success or enjoy a decent quality of life without a range of basic literacy, language and technological skills. A distressingly large segment of the city’s population lacks these basic building blocks, but the public library has stepped in, becoming the second chance human capital institution. No other institution, public or private, does a better job of reaching people who have been left behind in today’s economy, have failed to reach their potential in the city’s public school system or who simply need help navigating an increasingly complex world.
Although they are often thought of as cultural institutions, the reality is that the public libraries are a key component of the city’s human capital system.
Technologies such as e-books and mobile devices are an investment that will greatly benefit the public library system in the coming years.
The infographic below outlines the public’s opinion of community libraries and the best path forward for systemwide success.