My two days attending the Internet Librarian conference in Monterey last week reminded me of something that a lot of people already know. Despite predictions that they would be rendered obsolete by technology, libraries remain a vital part of our communities.
If anything, they’re more important than ever as I reminded attendees when I addressed the group. Libraries encourage and help satisfy curiosity and the search for truth and meaning. Along with schools, the arts and the news media, they offer our citizens not just knowledge, but entertainment, understanding and the critical thinking skills we need to make good personal and collective decisions in how we live our lives and govern our collective selves.
Even in some of the smallest and most remote parts of our country, there are libraries where we can expand our horizons or learn practical skills. But – as I learned at the conference – libraries do more than that. In some cases, they are places where people can not just absorb knowledge but create their works of literature or – for those libraries equipped with 3D printers or workshops, objects as well.
In a world where the divide between haves and have nots is growing wider, libraries are committed to accessibility. Jeanne Holm, deputy chief information officer and senior adviser to the mayor of Los Angeles told the conference about how libraries in her city have beefed up their WiFi signals so that homeless and other students without at-home access, can go online to do their homework at night from near the library, even after it’s closed.
She also talked about the library’s partnership with Hack for LA where “hacktivists” can work together to use technology to improve their city. Other speakers talked about how libraries are contributing to open government and access to public data. Most libraries have computers that the public can use. Some even lend out computers and tablets for patrons to use at home.
Click to listen to Larry’s 1-minute CBS News Radio segment about the Internet Librarian conference
Libraries have long played an important role in the preservation of documents and that continues and now includes making digital copies of historic and contemporary documents. It’s not just big institutional libraries that take on this task, but some that help preserve the memories that every community holds dear.
While the internet has done a great deal to bring information to us wherever we happen to be, libraries offer something we also need. Physical spaces where people can come to seek solitude or companionship knowing that there are professional advisers – called librarians – standing by to answer questions, make suggestions or just provide some intellectual or even emotional support. As it turns out, even this tech enthusiast is willing to admit that not everything nor everyone “can be replaced with a computer.”
But libraries are now far more than physical spaces. Some people may not realize that libraries provide a lot of digital resources including the app and website Hoopla, that lets you check out books, CDs, movies, audio books and other media to read, watch or listen to on a mobile device or a computer. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of times I’ve been able to borrow a free copy of something I was looking for using this app, which I access for free through my local library account.
Many libraries also offer free remote access to specialized research tools, study aids and databases, which typically charge a fee. Explore your local library’s website or, better yet, ask your librarian what they offer. And you may be able expand your options by getting library cards from other library systems, many of which don’t require you to be a resident.
I’ve long been a fan of reference librarians. Back before the internet, I would often call a librarian if I needed information for a newspaper column or broadcast. These days I can look things up on my own, but I occasionally still reach out for help with specialized databases, and there are lots of people who need help using search engines and other online research tools.
In many ways, having access to people with good research and information management tools is more important than ever. Where we once had a paucity of information, we now how a flood and not everything that we see online turns out to be useful or even true. There are skills involved in using search engines and understanding how to decide whether what you encounter is credible.
I don’t go to the library as often now as I did when my kids were little, but – back then – my wife and I took them there not just to borrow books, CDs and DVDs but for story time or just to sit and browse through books or interact with other children. Our local librarians became friends and role models for our children.
Still, I do wind up spending time at libraries, such as when I took a Tai Chi class at one of my local libraries in Palo Alto or when I visited the iconic New York library main during a business trip just to use the WiFi and escape the noise of the city. I sometimes stop at the Mitchell Park library in Palo Alto for a cappuccino at the adjacent Ada’s café and, while I’m there, check out the “lucky day” collection of often new and best-selling books and other media that the staff puts out.
And, said several speakers at the conference, libraries are not standing still. They continue to innovate with new spatial designs, enhanced digital collections and – yes — the human touch, which remains an essential part of what libraries have to offer.