Since the 7th century BC when ancient Assyrians pored over rows of clay tablets in the Library of Ashurbanipal, public libraries have been an integral part of local communities around the world. So integral, in fact, that modern Americans visit academic, school and public libraries three times more often than they go to the movies.
Surprising? It shouldn’t be! From offering a safe space for people of all ages to providing resources like books, internet access, and e-learning opportunities, public libraries have been, and continue to be, centers of community betterment.
In fact, today’s public libraries are more integral to their communities than ever. Instead of becoming obsolete in the age of the internet, they’ve evolved into hubs of learning and innovation. Are you curious about the impact public libraries have on the patrons they serve? Read on to find out more about why public libraries will always be needed to promote education and higher learning — no matter how much of our lives move online.
A Center of Community
Libraries of the ancient past were first constructed as holding places for society’s important collections and documents. The vast archives of books, scrolls, and other culturally significant artifacts attracted students and scholars from all over the world who were eager to learn.
Today, libraries are still our beacon of learning and scholarship, but they’re also so much more. They’re a place where job seekers can learn new skills and search for employment, or where local entrepreneurs can host seminars. A public library isn’t just for solitary learning: it’s a space where people collaborate and come together as a community.
Many libraries either host their own librarian-led book clubs or offer meeting spaces for outside clubs and discussion groups, both on and offline. Continuing education classes that help adults develop job skills have also become an integral offering at public libraries nationwide. Programs like New York Public Library’s virtual 1-on-1 consultation sessions and job application support give adults the tools they need to better cope with changing job trends and access to much-needed skills and training they may not be able to receive elsewhere.
With their wealth of resources and commitment to addressing the changing needs of the community, it’s no surprise that public libraries are a driving force behind innovation. Many are the go-to destination for local entrepreneurs, business people, tech enthusiasts, and information seekers. Libraries have even adapted their resources to meet the needs of a modernized population, providing resources for local and world news, genealogy tracking, early and adult literacy, career development, information fluency, money and health decisions, immigration services, and more.
One of the most well-known programs developed and offered through libraries around the country is the popular summer reading program.
Public libraries first introduced summer reading programs to urban schoolchildren in the 1890s as a way to promote literacy and encourage reading as a lifelong habit for children who weren’t needed for farm work. Today, summer reading programs are offered at over 95% of libraries in the United States, and have even moved online.
Although these programs differ in theme, they all work to instill in children a love of reading, help them maintain literacy skills over the summer months, and attract reluctant readers through a wealth of fun activities.
Creating Equal Access for All
The vast majority of the content we consume is now digital. Books, music, newspapers, research and everything in between have found a home online. However, the truth of the matter is that not everyone has access to the technology needed to consume digital media. In order to keep up with the digital evolution and provide everyone access to digital resources, libraries have evolved to become a hub for digital education and information, extending far beyond the traditional paperback.
According to a survey done by the American Library Association, public libraries are the number one point of online access for people without internet connections at home, school or work. That same survey also found that over 97% of libraries offer free wireless internet access, technology training, and educational/ learning opportunities. For many patrons, the library is the only place they can access these resources, making public libraries necessary for providing equitable access to technology and digital information.
Libraries in Times of Crisis
School, business, and public space closures across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic have only strengthened local libraries’ commitment to addressing the changing needs of their communities.
In California, librarians at Los Angeles Public Library have pulled together their resources in order to support local healthcare workers in desperate need of personal protective equipment (PPE). Octavia Lab, the digital media makerspace in LAPL’s Central Library, began 3-D printing face shields for use by L.A. County and UCLA Hospitals in April.
In partnership with Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), a limited number of trained staff in Octavia Lab produce the headbands and assemble the shields based on a model that has been approved by both hospitals. The face shields, which are sterile upon printing, are then bagged for distribution.
“This innovative, out-of-the-box thinking exemplifies both our library staff’s commitment to serve and the spirit of the Octavia Lab, where our motto is ‘Creativity Within Reach.’ I am thrilled that our staff has established this partnership,” said City Librarian John F. Szabo. “We so appreciate all of the health care workers who continue to serve, and we are happy to do our small part to help keep them safe.”
Libraries around the country are stepping up to support their communities in new and innovative ways. It’s clear that today’s public libraries are just as vital as they were almost 3000 years ago—and we’ll need tomorrow’s libraries just as much. As our communities continue to evolve, public libraries continue to anticipate and meet our changing needs through their embrace of technology, collaboration, and community spirit. Even when their doors are closed, libraries remain a lifeline for all.