by Pete Mazzaccaro

I’ll bet you didn’t know this week was National Library Week. That’s right, our nation’s libraries – storehouses of everything from kids movies on VHS tapes to scholarly journals unavailable anywhere else – get their own week.

Libraries? Who uses those anymore?

Ten years ago, it seemed strange behavior to choose the library over the local Borders Books. Borders let you browse books and read in comfy couches. And they served pretty good coffee and pastries.

That didn’t turn out so well for Borders. But today, with nearly everything available instantly on a Kindle, iPad or Android tablet, the library’s utility still seems to be something of an obvious question.

Local lawmakers tend to feel the same way about libraries. When budget deficits loom, libraries are an easy target for budget cuts. Many local libraries, including the Chestnut Hill Branch, have had cuts to staff and hours. Chestnut Hill can’t open its doors on Friday. Friday!

Libraries as obsolete repositories for an antiquated system of publishing (the paper book) would seem to be conventional wisdom, no?

Not so fast. Libraries remain more popular than you think. And it’s not all about lending books.

As the American Library Association points out:

“Libraries today are more than repositories for books and other resources. Often the heart of their communities, campuses or schools, libraries are deeply committed to the places where their patrons live, work and study. Libraries are trusted places where everyone in the community can gather to reconnect and reengage with each other to enrich and shape the community and address local issues.”

That’s a nice sentiment, but how true is it?

According to a 2012 study on the state of libraries by the ALA, library cards were held by 6 percent more people in 2010 than in 2006. Visits to the library increased 32.7 percent between 2001 and 2010 and, although the average American only visited the library 5.3 times a year, that figure represents a 21.7 percent increase over the same 10-year period.

So why, when all of our media consumption is turning digital, do libraries actually find a demand for their services increasing?

Part of that problem is actually the solution. The ALA reported in the study that demand for public computers and WiFi continues to rise, with many urban libraries finding that they do not have enough computers to meet demand. According to the study, 62 percent of libraries said they are the only source of free computers and WiFi in their community. And not surprisingly, 74 percent of libraries say WiFi use had increased in 2011.

A theme to many of the findings in the 2012 report is that libraries are absolutely vital to closing the digital divide – allowing people without the resources for their own digital libraries or even access to software we all take for granted to have that access. Whether it’s in the inner city or a rural area, libraries are the only place where people can expect to have access to the Web.. All they need is a library card.

Many libraries also provide electronic books that can be read on devices like Kindles and iPads and audiobooks that can listened to on iPods and mp3 devices. The software required can be a stunt to use, but it’s a service that is available in an increasing number of public libraries.

So, yeah, the library is as important today as it was 100 years ago. The medium might have changed, but the mission is the same.

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