By: Jim Rettig and Greg Worrell
When economic times get tough, the average American family's solution is to get creative. In rethinking their budgets, many families across the country are turning to a familiar place - the public library.
As one South Florida man discovered, canceling his home Internet access and taking advantage of the free Internet service offered at his local public library could save his family over $700 a year.
He's not alone. More than any other time in the past two decades, Americans are heading to their libraries in droves and tapping into a host of free services --from books to Internet access to entertainment to programming and events. A new Harris Poll found that around 75 percent of Americans have a library card and have visited their local public library in the past year - up from 65 percent two years ago.
We already know that through their power to educate and to inspire libraries level the playing field for underserved communities. It is the library that opens the door to life-changing books and provides access to the world beyond our communities. Perhaps most importantly, libraries exist as centers of culture, community and learning.
As the nation continues to experience a sharp and jarring economic downturn, local libraries are providing valuable free tools and resources to help Americans of all ages through this time of uncertainty. From offering homework help to assisting with resumes and job searches to helping patrons navigate unemployment insurance forms, now more than ever libraries are proving that they are valued and trusted community partners.
For many Americans, the public library is the only option they have for financial advice and information to secure their families' futures. Public libraries are providing unique services tailored to meet the needs of their communities through this economic crisis. Public libraries across the country offer free on-site financial education classes for adults that include investor education, information on tax preparation, assistance on financial aid applications and access to expensive financial journals and periodicals.
Public libraries design and offer programs specifically tailored to meet local economic needs, providing residents with guidance (including sessions with career advisers), career training and workshops, job-search resources and connections with outside agencies that offer training and job placement. The Millington, Tenn., Public Library has seen patron attendance double for free adult programs in education, small business development and job networking.
In fact, at every site we visited as part of the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, libraries reported that job-related activities are a priority use of library computers and Internet services. Three-fourths of all libraries offer information technology training to their patrons, including how to conduct online job searches and how to use standard office software applications.
One of the single most critical roles public libraries play in hard economic times is helping patrons access employment assistance. The state of California actually requires applicants to apply online for unemployment benefits -- but not everyone is computer-literate or savvy. Without free access to library computers and the Internet, how are these jobless folks expected to get back on their feet? Without someone to help them, how can they even apply for assistance? Some people need -- receive from their libraries -- help with learning skills as basic as using a mouse.
In addition to using the library to research and apply for jobs, many patrons rely on libraries for help managing their finances. As individuals become increasingly responsible for their own retirement planning and for navigating complex and ever-changing financial information, knowing where to turn for unbiased information can be a challenge. Happily, many libraries throughout the country are now providing objective financial information for community members.
These myriad services have given libraries a well-deserved reputation for offering local government an excellent return on investment. In Florida, a study showed that libraries create jobs, raise wages and increase gross regional product, returning $6.54 for dollar invested; studies in South Carolina, Ohio, Seattle and Phoenix echo these findings.
Unfortunately, even the public library is not immune to the pinch of hard economic times. Across the country, budget cuts to public libraries are resulting in closures and reduced hours. From San Diego, which faces the potential closure of seven libraries, to Licking County Library in Newark, which was recently forced to cut 22 full-time-equivalent jobs and reduce hours as a result of budget reductions, it is clear America's public libraries are experiencing their own damage from a weakened economy.
During this time of transition in our nation's leadership, the greatest challenge we face is getting our economy back on its feet. As our country faces the challenges and uncertainty of this time, the public library is one constant that all Americans, regardless of age or economic status, can count on, and it is incumbent on our leaders make it a priority to ensure America's libraries remain open and ready to serve the needs of students, job seekers, investors, business people and others in the community who want information and need a place to get it.
And let us not forget that, especially in times of uncertainty, there is nothing more comforting than a good book. Aren't we lucky that there is a place where we can get one for free?
Jim Rettig is the current President of the American Library Association and university librarian at the Boatwright Memorial Library, University of Richmond.
Greg Worrell is the president of the classroom and library group at Scholastic.