Libraries as America's Techno-Glue?

With public demand for digital training up 36 percent in a year, libraries, facing an increasingly diverse clientele, bring communities together and serve people of all ages and backgrounds, a Midwest librarian says.

Jessica McPhail is director of the Racine (Wis.) Public Library. (Courtesy photo)

Nearly three years ago, an out-of-work carpenter came to my library in Racine, Wis., to find a job. I directed him to our online job listings, only to realize moments later that he had never used a mouse before. Over the next two hours, I taught the carpenter how to use the computer, create an email account, and navigate our state's online job portal.

There are thousands of people like the carpenter who depend on libraries for job-search assistance, computer classes, and access to the Internet in Racine, a former manufacturing center that now has the highest unemployment rate in the state. Our library and its technology resources are a lifeline for a community in which 24 percent of residents live below the poverty level and 61 percent of students in the city are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

At a time when more information is moving online and into digital formats, our patrons highly value free access to books and the range of resources and programs available at the library. To accommodate the high demand for digital services, we added several Internet-equipped computers to the computer lab and expanded library space for laptop users. As a library director, I see students, parents, and readers turn to the library when they need homework help, children's books, historical information, or research assistance.

For all these reasons and more, 90 percent of Americans say that a library shutdown would impact their community, with blacks and Hispanics more likely to say public library services are very important to them and their families. This new research from the Pew Research Center finds that 95 percent of Americans agree that libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed. By offering learning materials, assistance from librarians, a safe and welcoming public space, and a range of programs, libraries contribute to our quality of life. Library services are especially important in my racially and economically diverse community, where service needs range from English classes to Affordable Care Act online-enrollment sessions to a new Fiber Arts club for people to share, learn and develop their craft.

Demand for library services has increased steadily over the past few years. According to an American Library Association study, public demand for digital training and technology classes increased 36 percent from 2011 to 2012, while the demand for public Internet-connected computers increased 60 percent. The Pew study found that 72 percent of all American adults have either used a public library in the past year or live in a household with a family member who is an active library user.

Libraries have a particularly strong connection with parents and school-age children. Ninety-four percent of parents say libraries are important for their children, particularly because libraries help inculcate their children's love of reading and books and provide their children with information and resources not available at home. We serve children nearly from birth with early literacy efforts like our statewide Growing Wisconsin Readers to learning labs that support hands-on STEM learning and multimedia storytelling for children and teens. Libraries help children get ready to read and support the lifelong learning that is essential for success in a dynamic and increasingly technology-saturated world.

In our library, we have seen an increase in demand for high-speed Internet, as well as e-books and online homework help. Since 2011, our patron demand for e-books has nearly quadrupled while the demand for audiobooks has increased more than 40 percent. American Library Association President Barbara Stripling said it well: "The future of libraries is both online and in person — high tech and high touch."

In an increasingly diverse world, libraries bring communities together and serve people of all ages and backgrounds. I hope more people will look to librarians in policy conversations ranging from broadband adoption to 21st-century education and learning to public access to government information and resources. With more than 16,400 locations, libraries reach nearly every corner of this great nation, and we are part of the solution in ensuring everyone may be able to thrive in the digital age.