Libraries Can Help Turn the Page on Economy

September 27, 2010 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

In the west-central Minnesota community of Kerkhoven, citizens have been filling out a survey that will determine their public library's future.  Community input will guide how the city, other local governments and foundations support the Kerkhoven Public Library. It could even result in the library shutting down.

The larger city of St. Paul is also soliciting community comments to conclude what types of services it will provide in the future as part of a strategic planning effort.

Both communities' local leaders are wrestling with similar issues: costs, changing demographics, changing technology needs and uses.  Increased public demands for Internet services especially have changed libraries' community role, making education and training for librarians vital. More and more they're helping community members seeking Web connections find new jobs or access government, health and business information.

Ted Almen, Kerkhoven Banner's editor and publisher, said at week's end that surveys have now been sent to the Kerkhoven Public Library and the larger, regional Pioneerland Library System in Willmar. But results had yet to be tabulated.

With dwindling state assistance, Kerkhoven city officials are considering pulling out of the cooperative support arrangement with Swift County and the community center's foundation and trusts that house and maintain the library.

Doing so might save the city about $6,000, Almen said. But that would shift the burden of paying for library services to the other entities, or lead to cutbacks or the library's closure.

Citizens look at the library as "an amenity" making Kerkhoven a nice place to live, he concedes. But it is more than that; it is a depot to Kerkhoven's future, as is also the case with St. Paul Public Libraries and anecdotal library experiences statewide.

Kit Hadley, St. Paul library system's director, made that clear in a Sept. 10th St. Paul Pioneer Press op-ed ("Libraries look for their place as technologies evolve").  She was driving traffic to the library's web site and soliciting public comments on four likely scenarios emerging while local budgets are under stress.

Hadley's newspaper column sought comments on whether a library should be a community forum where people gather for face-to-face exchanges; how libraries might be part of a new "learning network" with schools and institutions; how they might serve as a "technology commons" to support education, entrepreneurship, creative work and daily life; and if the library should be a "mobile app" that would make its services virtual and portable.

These are relevant questions. Minnesota 2020 noted two years ago that rural librarians in northwest Minnesota found themselves working as technology assistants helping senior citizens with online access to Social Security and health care information. This work, terribly important in their communities, didn't fall under their traditional job descriptions. And neither did their work in teaching area residents to use technology for continued learning or job searches.     

 A snapshot on U.S. library use tabulated by Dublin, Ohio-based Online Computer Library Center (OCLC Cooperative) found people made 1.4 billion visits to libraries last year. That's more than the 1.3 billion tickets sold to movies and 218 million sold for sporting events.

Of importance to people preparing for and finding work, however, 12,000 public libraries provided free wireless Internet access, exceeding the 11,000 Starbucks locations and 1,300 Borders and Barnes & Noble stores. What's more, 5,400 public libraries, including suburban Washington County libraries in Minnesota, offer free technology classes for 14,700 people daily - which OCLC projects to have a retail value of $629 million.

A more complete study of current library uses and technology dependence comes from a University of Washington report earlier this year, which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported. Based on more than 50,000 surveys nationwide, the study found about 77 million Americans used their public libraries in 2009. Some of these users aren't surprising, on a surface level, but other responders were a bit uncharacteristic even though they clearly showed dependence on libraries for information - regardless how it is obtained.

It found that 44 percent of people living below the federal poverty line used computers and the Internet at public libraries. At the same time, three-quarters of library users had access to computers and the Internet at home, work or elsewhere, but were going to the library for faster Internet service, temporary access in emergencies, or to seek assistance from librarians.

Library technology was substantial in four areas that are especially significant for an America and a Minnesota on the economic mend. These areas included employment, with 40 percent of library tech users searching for career help and 75 percent searching for jobs. Education, health and government information searches also comprised high use areas.

"There is no ambiguity in these numbers. Millions of people see libraries as an essential tool to connect them to information, knowledge, and opportunities," said Marsha Semmel of the University of Washington Institute for Museum and Library Services, which conducted the study. "Policy makers must fully recognize and support the role libraries are playing in workforce development, education, health and wellness, and the delivery of government services."

Here in Minnesota, that recognition starts with policy makers restoring local government aid (LGA). That is key to what services big city libraries, like St. Paul's, can offer in the future; and whether small communities, like Kerkhoven, can keep libraries open.

For further reading, see the University of Washington report here.   

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