Up until a couple of years ago, the basic operations of our libraries hadn’t changed much since philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40,000,000 to build about 1,700 libraries in communities throughout the country. Now, the very existence of our libraries is threatened.

Like many businesses, libraries all over the country—if they haven’t been closed due to budget cuts—are faced with the need to change their modus operandi to embrace not only lack of funding but also radical changes in technology during the past several years. In these days of Internet and eReaders libraries may seem like an antiquated source of information.

If there’s an upside in the downturn for libraries because they can no longer depend on tax dollars to stay open, it’s the fact that they’ve been forced to look at new ways of providing a service to their communities.

It may be hard to believe that not everyone has a computer and many libraries are rebranding themselves as employment resources. People who don’t have  access to the Internet at home use their local library to see what jobs are out there. Many companies request employment applications over the Internet. Libraries also provide wonderful programs for activities, such as, children’s reading programs and classes help seniors manage their lives.

People can find the answers to simple reference questions on the Internet but more complicated answers tend to involve deeper research. In depth answers can usually be provided by libraries who subscribe to databases not generally available to the public without the hefty fee a single contributor would need to pay for access.

Genealogy is a booming business and for people who can’t afford, or are not yet ready, to subscribe to sites like Ancestry.com or My Heritage and public libraries usually provide access to patrons free of charge. You’ll probably find a specially designated area for local genealogical research and genealogy classes too.

Our local library has cut back on hours by closing on Friday’s and opening every other Saturday. All this is in spite of the fact that it has recently been renovated thanks to a benefactress who was probably the last of the old world philanthropists. This is a difficult situation for people looking for work who need computer access.

The cutbacks in hours is due to the fact that all public libraries rely on city and county governments to pay for staff, material and maintenance, with many communities deciding  it’s an expense they no longer can afford. And, as a result, some libraries have been turned over to private library companies.

Private companies owning libraries is likely to be both good and bad. The bad translates to higher fees for people who can’t afford to pay. The good may probably mean a more robust service and resources. Of course, streamlined services cost money, which leads to the higher fees. There’s bound to be a dog-in-the-manger attitude by the government. They don’t consider library funding as important but will not like the private sector offering an alternative.

It’s a well-known fact that the publishing industry is in trouble. People are no longer able to afford the cost of purchasing a new book by their favorite author. The fact that people are actually using their local library more frequently to borrow the latest best-seller is not enough to increase the annual budget. “It’s the economy stupid.”

I think it’s safe to say that big changes are on the horizon for that old Industrial Age institution, the public library.


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2 Comments on What’s happening to public libraries in the face of new technology and budget cutbacks?

  1. Joe K says:

    Public libraries are way down on the list of priorities. If only for some of the services people need, like access to computers for job search, they should be kept open. I recently asked someone to hand a resume to the Human Resources department of a large company, only to be informed that I needed to send it electronically.

  2. LInda Gartz says:

    My town, home to Northwestern University, has a main library and two branches — one on the south side and one on the north side of town. The branches have been on the chopping block for a while — but locals raised money to keep them open. The branches have eliminated Fridays for at least 10 years. Thursdays closed for the past two. Local community centers that pay for themselves with fees for classes are on the chopping block. Our main library seems pretty safe at the moment — but big cuts are coming. We also have some of the highest property taxes in the whole Chicagoland area. These folks who played with money so loosely have really wreaked havoc on the most vulnerable in society. I can buy a book and own a computer. Many can’t and don’t. But the town has a huge deficit (also did not properly fund police and fire fighters’ pensions for decades!!!) and how we can all pay.

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