Monday, November 19, 2007

Your Local Public Library – Still Relevant?

I live in a city that has a public library serving over 50,000 residents. I’ve lived in the community for over 30 years, and have watched the library expand and grow in its offerings. Over the years, the library has developed from a place where people come only to borrow books and do research using books, to a place where you can borrow books, DVDs, CDs, and have Internet access. Despite the fact that my local library has been having some trouble of late getting an increase in tax dollars, every time I visit there, the large parking lot is always full and the place is vibrant with people.

So why can’t they get more money? There could be several reasons.

The library may seem like it has a lot of visitors, but they could be repeat visitors. Standing in line last week waiting for the library to open, I spoke to two people who came there only to read the daily paper, and one who was there for Internet access. (I was there to borrow some music.) The paper-readers said they come there every day the library is open only to read the paper. The Internet user said she comes there twice a week for access. So a lot of people AT the library may not equate to a large number or percentage of the city’s population USING the library.

Some may not realize that the library has more than books. Our local library has a decent selection of DVDs and music available, plus audio books. Granted, it’s not like walking in to your local Borders or Barnes and Noble and seeing their music selection, but it still has some good content. And those who say they can’t afford a home computer or Internet access forget that with a free library card, they can have free Internet access.

I am a little disappointed in the overall book selection at the library. Sure, they do get several of the popular best sellers and have many of the classics in fiction and non-fiction. As far as the rest of the books in other, possible less trendy categories like science, nature, entertainment, even computer programs, the books are dated. This, of course is the catch-22; they can’t get tax dollar for new books because residents see the library dated so tax initiates get voted down, but they can’t update the book offering without more tax dollars.

There are more challenges ahead in the upcoming years for libraries. As more information and things like music are available electronically, the library may find itself needing more computer access. If they continue to offer music and movies, they will have to find another way to acquire and deliver content for download. Considering Google's aggressive plan to scan books (see link below), brick-and-mortar libraries may be a thing of the past, with everything available via computer.

Public libraries must continue to show value to a community in order for the community to continue to fund them. From my own experience right now, the library remains relevant. But, they have to keep their eye on the future to keep up with changing technologies and differing ways of delivering content to their customers. Otherwise, public libraries may not survive.

Link to information on Google's book scanning initiative:

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