Check Out Your Local Library

In the conversation about the future of media, so much of the focus naturally falls to technology and the role it will play in distributing information to the masses.  Most attention is paid to the creation of media and how we can monetize it.  In doing that, however, we often overlook the institutions that are already playing a critical role in providing access to information, like libraries.  We forget that most of the audience for information doesn’t own, can’t afford, and may not even be interested in the latest gadget or gizmo.  We ignore the role that buildings, and more importantly what is inside those buildings, might play.

Libraries are critical to our economy and central to our community life.  “Libraries help people find jobs, support education and lifelong learning, provide access to information and telecommunications services, empower families, and enable civic engagement as well as promote literacy and connect communities,” argues the American Library Association.  Public libraries are the sole source of no-fee access to the Internet for almost three quarters of Americans without connectivity at home or work, (and that number grows to more than 80% in rural communities).  They are also a meeting space, a safe location for children to do homework and a haven for community groups to organize.  President-Elect Obama calls libraries “a window to a larger world.”  However you describe them, it seems clear that libraries have a far greater impact on our society than any computer, mobile phone, or online social network can on its own.

While most in the media industry who produce content, including newspapers, magazine and book publishers, struggle in the face of challenging economic times, libraries are doing better than ever.  According to the Boston Globe, “Attendance is surging. Check-out rates are soaring. At some libraries, circulation – the number of items checked out in a given month – is up as much as 33 percent since last summer.”  They are, in the words of one columnist, a ‘recession sanctuary.”

And yet, in tough economic times, budgets for libraries — whether they are public, school, academic, federal or research in focus — are among the first to be cut.  At a time when demand for library services is growing, libraries face the possibility of having to cut back, or even close — leaving millions of people, in communities across the nation, without a way to get online, a place to gather, or a way to learn.

Most, if not all, libraries receive public funding – so its up to the government to understand the value that libraries provide.  But we can help.  Many believe, incorrectly, that in the fast-paced, instant message, Internet era, public libraries can’t compete for attention.  That’s not the case.  Libraries have been changing for years, repositioning themselves to attract patrons in a digital age, and create environments where other media find new and different ways of having an impact.  As the Globe notes, “In recent years, libraries have expanded their DVD collections, opened Internet cafes, attracted children with video game hours, and even used technology to let people download music and video.”  There are also homework clinics, job-skills workshops, and counseling sessions being run out of many libraries.

The future of media is not just about the creation of media, its also about how the audience – whoever they  may be – can gain access to that information.  Technology is not the only way that people get access to information, and even as technology’s role increases, we must recognize that many people don’t have access to their own laptops, cell phones or PDAs.  Much of the media we create is made available through libraries, whether directly by having books and newspapers available for check-out or indirectly by having computers and internet access available for people to access.  Particularly in this fast-paced media environment, all content seems to have a longer shelf-life (if you will), and a greater reach because libraries exist.  As such, cutting back or allowing libraries to shutter won’t just hurt the people who use libraries, its impact will be felt across the media industry.  We should know better than to let that happen.

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