By now you’ve probably heard that public libraries have outlived their usefulness in today’s modern, digital age. There’s no use for book lending when everything you could possibly want is only a click away, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, so what’s the point of devoting millions of tax dollars to supporting the state’s public libraries? Wouldn’t that money be much better spent elsewhere? This line of thinking is dangerously close-minded. Public libraries make a far bigger contribution to their communities than simply the lending of books, and in the age of e-government and economic recession, their role is more critical than ever.
Beyond the books, there is the public library’s community function to consider. Libraries can provide a safe, public space where people can congregate and meet without having to purchase anything. For many of the elderly, the library is the only place where social interaction takes place. This sense of community may not have a true dollar value, but it is clearly not without value for society as a whole. For children and teens, as well as adults of all ages, public libraries can be a place of lifelong education and discovery without fear of judgment. In a world where Amazon tracks every page view and sale, big data is rampant, and Internet browsing history is archived on computers, this sense of privacy is essential.
Then there is the lingering issue of the so-called “digital divide.” For those without home internet access, particularly in rural parts of the state, public libraries are often the only providers of free-of-charge access to the Internet, and therefore online government. Though this may at first sound like a minor issue, aid forms, tax forms, and other government forms and information are increasingly available only online. Not only that, but they often require users to have (and know how to use) e-mail addresses. Public libraries are uniquely suited to help mitigate the digital divide. Not only can libraries provide information in the form of books, libraries can and often do host workshops and other programming to teach basic computer skills. Without the vital point of access provided by local public libraries, those people without home Internet access or basic computer literacy skills would eventually and inevitably become excluded from the process of government altogether.
Additionally, and especially important to consider in tough economic times, public libraries can play a crucial role in community economic development and in improving community financial literacy. With proper development, public libraries can become the new centers of their communities, drawing patrons to reinvigorated downtowns. They can also use their collections to assist and inform entrepreneurs and small business owners, encouraging economic growth at a very local level. Public library programming is often focused on providing patrons with basic computer literacy, but can include other crucial skills such as resume writing or filling out government forms online. Wisconsin’s public libraries are only starting to see the myriad ways in which they can help communities recover from the recession.
The points outlined here illustrate just a few of the reasons why it is crucial to secure adequate funding for Wisconsin’s public libraries in the future. Public libraries are not only necessary to Wisconsin’s communities in the current moment, they must be able to meet the growing and evolving needs of their communities in the future, and they will require both up-to-date technology and increasing numbers of sufficiently trained employees in order to meet those needs. This simply cannot be accomplished with budget cuts and reductions in service. The only way public libraries will outlive their usefulness is if they are not allowed to grow and evolve alongside their communities and the technologies that drive those communities.