Many Americans are rediscovering their local public library during the pandemic as a source of no-fee learning, information and entertainment — digital books, movies and games — and virtual programming such as story time for young children. For some, the local library has been a lifeline.
Even when their doors are closed for public safety, many of the nation’s nearly 17,000 public libraries boosted their Wi-Fi signal to provide 24/7 access in their parking lots. In some rural areas, the public library offers the fastest, most reliable internet connection available for miles.
Equitable access to information, which has always been libraries’ mission, means more than providing access to broadband: Equity calls for the ability and tools necessary to experience and adopt new technologies. Today’s libraries are established centers for learning and advancement. People use them to access new technologies, improve job skills, pursue educational programs, start new businesses and conduct research — and, yes, you can still check out books.
Public Libraries Provide a Wealth of Resources
Nearly 90 percent of libraries offer digital literacy training, which boosts users’ confidence and makes the internet more relevant to their lives.
At a minimum, libraries provide tools such as DigitalLearn, an online hub for basic digital literacy support and training created by the Public Library Association (a division of the American Library Association). Increasingly, libraries actively engage with youth to promote coding-related learning, education and careeers.
READ MORE: Find out how libraries have been expanding digital services.
Libraries Enable Resident to Build and Learn New Skills
Just as it is a place for cultivating all kinds of literacies, the library is a place to try out new technologies, allowing those with fewer resources at home to expand their horizons. Harnessing the power of virtual 3D technology, the Nevada XR Libraries Project established XR hardware and software in public libraries to provide immersive learning experiences. The libraries deliver XR content to schools, focusing on STEM subjects and paired with lesson plans, Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.
Many modern libraries include technology centers and makerspaces — communal areas for collaboration and innovation — equipped with devices such as 3D modeling and printing resources, audio/video production and editing studios, laser cutters, musical instruments and music recording and production studios, sewing machines and Legos. From Washington state’s King County Library System to Orlando Public Library’s Melrose Center, libraries have dedicated simulators for operating forklifts and excavators, and for driving vehicles and flying airplanes, along with corresponding training classes.
Libraries also connect specialized equipment and digital learning with small business development and entrepreneurship. Programs like Red Mountain Library’s “Google My Business” seminar in Arizona and others across the country train new entrepreneurs to use search engine optimization and social media to grow their business.
In Ohio, the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Microbusiness Center offers a coworking space with easy access to a business librarian, databases that facilitate competitive analysis and market research, an audio recording studio, and other tech resources to generate prototypes or promotional materials.
Libraries Are Here to Help
Libraries Build Business, a collaboration between ALA and Google.org, identifies and scales library-led entrepreneurship models that help low-income entrepreneurs to start and grow small businesses.
Leveraging libraries to advance economic opportunity as well as pandemic recovery is cost-effective and efficient. The national infrastructure is already in place, ready to accommodate new programs. As the fabric of our economy and society as a whole changes, community leaders and elected decision-makers should look to libraries to level the playing field so that every American has an opportunity to succeed.