Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 19, 2008

Libraries, librarians even more important in the information age

“It is no longer necessary to go to the library for research; the nearest Internet terminal has as much data as the nearest library.” ~ Gilroy Dispatch Columnist Cynthia Walker

“A lot of people … think that libraries are passé. And those people tend to think that everybody has access to the Internet, and that’s not true.” ~ Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library Technology Director Debra Champ

In the information age, it’s easy to knock libraries and librarians, as Walker frequently demonstrates:

• If libraries lend post-Gutenberg press media like DVDs and CDs, or offer puzzle days or puppet shows that promote literacy and knowledge, Walker chides them for offering “entertainment.”

• If a librarian positions monitors to promote privacy, or points out Internet filter shortcomings, Walker implies that these are attempts to facilitate access to smut.

It’s also misguided. So, allow me – an unabashed library lover and president of my city’s Friends of the Library group – to defend libraries and librarians.

Walker asks, “What is the purpose of a library? What is the justification of a tax supported library?”

The Santa Clara County Library’s mission statement answers those questions: “The library provides free access to informational, educational, and recreational materials and services. … The library provides diverse resources on a wide variety of subjects and viewpoints and helps people use these resources.”

Those resources aren’t just books any more.

Digital publishing is faster, cheaper and environmentally friendlier than traditional publishing. Unlike traditional publishing, it produces documents that are searchable and instantly travel vast distances.

That’s why information is increasingly being presented on pixels instead of paper.

That’s why, in the information age, libraries deliver digital information as well as paper-based periodicals and books.

That’s why, for those of us who can afford computers and Internet access and know how to use them, information is widely available.

But, that’s also why information is increasingly unavailable to those who cannot afford computers and Internet connections or don’t possess the skills to use them.

Libraries bridge that gap, much as they did when, as Walker notes, “…books were rare and expensive.”

If former President Ronald Reagan was right when he said, “Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders,” then it’s clear that libraries not only help bridge the digital divide, but also spread freedom and democracy.

M2Z Networks defines the digital divide as “the gap between those with regular, effective access to digital technologies and those without. It undermines American economic growth, prosperity, and competitiveness and creates risks associated with a disenfranchised class of citizens.”

It notes that “70 million [Americans] lack access to any type of Internet connection,” and “91 percent of adults living in households earning more than $75,000 have Internet access but only 53 percent of adults living in households with less than $30,000 have the same.”

Without open and properly equipped libraries, Walker’s “nearest Internet terminal” is nowhere in sight for many of our neighbors.

Alleviating information poverty isn’t the only role for libraries and librarians in the information age.

Because, as Lotus founder Mitchell Kapor noted, “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant,” librarians are more important than ever.

For example, a Google search using the search terms “race” and “politics” returns a whopping 8.9 million hits.

World-renown Internet usability expert Jakob Nielsen notes that “… many users don’t know how to use search to truly master the Web. People don’t understand advanced search features, they rarely employ query reformulation, and many uncritically select the first search results.”

A librarian is an invaluable resource for finding reliable information among millions of search engine hits. If your library is open, a librarian can help.

The answer to Walker’s final question, “Does the Santa Clara County Library confer a net benefit for the city of Gilroy?” is clearly “Yes!”

Gilroyans and many Santa Clara County residents will face that question in the voting booth soon, whether they’re asked to pay for a much-needed new building or maintaining or expanding library hours.

When library measures appear on your ballot, remember that libraries and librarians increase literacy, reduce information poverty and bridge the digital divide – in short, remember that they dramatically improve our communities.

“The dawning of the information age represents an opportunity for equality that we have not enjoyed since Horace Mann first championed the idea of free public school.”
~ Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt

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