Libraries in the Digital Age? Yes, They're Still Crucial

A panel in New Mexico helped open eyes to the many roles already filled by libraries – a reality, panel members said, that many policy-makers sadly are not that familiar with.

(TNS) -- Creative workspaces for people to collaborate on computer-based projects. Shared databases among public school, municipal, state and academic libraries. Help for the unemployed in preparing job applications.

Those services already are among the many you can find in libraries that are becoming a one-stop shop for people not only in need of information, but also seeking access to modern information technology.

And they may represent just the tip of the iceberg in libraries’ continuing journey beyond the stacks.

A panel with librarians, an archivist and an educator last Saturday at St. John’s College helped open audience members’ eyes to the many roles already filled by libraries – a reality, panel members said, that many policy-makers sadly are not that familiar with.

It’s all a little mind-boggling for those of us whose childhood years in public libraries consisted of wandering through badly-lit stacks of books – and little else.

Libraries always were there to help people who might not have that many books at home.

Now, they play an equally crucial role in helping bridge the Digital Divide between the haves and have-nots when it comes to computer technology.

Pat Hodapp, the outspoken director of Santa Fe Public Library, pointed out that the local school board last year voted to hike property taxes to raise some $55 million for technology, including portable computer devices for students. But what good does it do them if they don’t have access to the Internet or printers at home?

So where will they take their tablets to access that technology? To the library.

“Today, the Digital Divide is still there,” Hodapp said. The library saw 111,465 computer users in the past fiscal year and 62 percent say it’s their only computer access.

The public library, in a sense, has become a social service center, she noted, where homeless people come to spend their daytime hours and people unfamiliar with computers get help with everything from setting up an email account to filling out a job application.

And it always has been a community center, many noted, where an east side matron can mix with a homeless person and an immigrant from El Salvador, all in the same space.

But if you really want to get a feel for a futurist library, consider one that just opened last year in Colorado Springs.

According to news reports in the Colorado Springs Gazette, that library contains:

Sewing machines with advanced functions that can help people finish projects they don’t have the equipment for at home.

A business center with meeting rooms and teleconferencing capability.

Creative spaces with 3-D printers, equipment for video and audio production, and software and platforms for video game development.

A family center that focuses on parental involvement and child development, with information to connect them to other resources or social service agencies.

A 400-seat space for lectures and the performing arts.

Wow. Andrew Carnegie must be spinning in his grave. Or smiling in satisfaction.

This ambitious library of the future recognizes two things: the crucial role libraries play in enriching the lives and education of kids who don’t have those resources at home, as well as their role as a place where all members of the community can come together and interact.

In the public schools, which could serve part of that role, libraries are not as good as they could be, according to Sarah Heartt, a former librarian and now 6th-grade teacher at Amy Biehl Community School.

“Some of the collections in SFPS are OK, but many are terrible,” she said. “In our town, very few (school) librarians are trained in collection development and they work autonomously.” She compared that to Albuquerque Public Schools, where library oversight is centralized.

The need for oversight also appears in one-on-one interactions. The 11-year-olds she teaches, Heartt said, have no problem with using the technology. But guidance on the content they discover, she said, is crucial. Yet the librarians who can provide that guidance and help students discover reliable databases often are the first to be cut in tight budget times.

Santa Fe biographer James McGrath Morris mentioned a time when he was teaching high school and a student used another student’s online paper as a reference source – one that contained a number of factual mistakes.

You can’t be too careful. After all, he quipped, you can find information online that indicates the Statue of Liberty’s function is to guide aliens to their landing site.

Oh, by the way, while all the librarians talked about how they welcome everyone and are happy to help, only St. John’s has a friendly library dog on duty.

©2015 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)