As we’ve been crisscrossing the country visiting towns and cities for our American Futures project, I always look forward to stopping in the town's public library. Every town has one. They’re often lovely buildings. (Thank you, Andrew Carnegie!) They offer a first pulse of the town. (Are they vibrant and bustling?) The librarians are as knowledgeable as the newspaper editors and as welcoming as the Chamber of Commerce. Who wouldn’t love a library?
The library visits have taken me by surprise for a couple of reasons, starting with how I sorely needed to catch up with the times and see how libraries have evolved since I visited them regularly. (The Internet and an empty nest changed my habits.) Three recent library posts are from Columbus, Ohio, Charleston, West Virginia, and Winters, California.
Here are three things among many I have noticed about libraries. They are telling for the way libraries speak to needs in our communities across America. It’s not just my impression; the numbers collected behind the phenomena are strong, and the human stories behind them resonate as true.
Libraries are for job seekers: One of my first stops inside the libraries I’ve visited has been to ask a librarian what most of the people are likely to be up to at the busy banks of computer terminals. The answer always includes some version of “looking for jobs” or “applying for jobs.” The librarians also add that they spend a lot of time helping guide people through the process. Sometimes it is more complicated than you’d guess, as with one story I related from the Columbus, Ohio public library:
A young man comes into the library seeking help with a job search and filing his application for work. A librarian helps him load the application onto the screen. They agree he’ll fill it out and she’ll return to look it over. The librarian returns to discover the man has completed the application, not by keying in the responses, but with a marking pen on the screen.
The Pew Internet Project, which has been tracking use of and attitudes towards libraries, finds among Americans who have ever used a library or even had someone in their household use a library, 30 percent say that help in finding or applying for a job is a very important service that their library provides.