Gannett News Service and ALEX DALENBERG
The Internet was supposed to send America’s public libraries the way of eight-track tapes and pay phones. It turns out, libraries and librarians are busier than ever.
Libraries have transformed themselves from staid, sleepy institutions into hip community centers.
They offer Internet service, classes for kids and seniors, and even coffee and video gaming nights.
Some libraries offer classes on citizenship for recent immigrants and provide sessions on improving computer skills.
Most offer wireless Internet service, and many consult teen advisory councils for guidance on how to attract young people.
At most libraries, traffic is up – in some cases, way up – fueled in part by the lure of free computer use, according to experts and a Gannett News Service analysis of state and federal data.
At the same time, budget pressures on cities and counties that provide most of the funding for the institutions forced dozens of libraries to cut back their hours or close of late.
Books remain a staple, but libraries also offer DVDs, CDs and electronic audio books playable on portable MP3 devices.
Many allow readers to reserve and renew items online.
“As a group, libraries have embraced the digital age,” said Lee Rainie, founding director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which surveys the public’s attitudes toward libraries.
“They’ve added collections, added software and hardware, upgraded the skills of their staff,” Rainie said. “A lot of institutions have had to change in the Internet age, but libraries still have a very robust and large constituency.”
This holds true for the Tucson area, said Nancy Ledeboer, director of the Pima County Public Library system.
“I thought 10 years ago, ‘Oh, 10 years from now the demand will die and everyone will have computers at home and we won’t have to worry about this,’ ” Ledeboer said. “If anything, the demand has been increasing.”
A December 2007 Pew survey found that more than half of Americans – 53 percent – visited a library in the past year. That’s expected to grow as more people look for free resources and entertainment in a slowing economy.
People between 18 and 30 years old were most likely to visit a library and also were the most likely to say they’d return, the Pew survey found.
The Gannett News Service analysis compared data from 2002 and 2006 on the nation’s nearly 9,200 local library systems, using information provided by the National Center for Education Statistics and by each state and the District of Columbia.
The news service also looked at state-level data compiled by the national center for 2005, because in some cases that data were more reliable or complete than information from 2006.
The analysis found that libraries are thriving in the Internet age:
• Attendance increased roughly 10 percent between 2002 and 2006 to about 1.3 billion. Regionally, states in the South lag the rest of the country in visits per person.
• Visits to the Pima County system increased 2.4 percent between 2002 and 2006 while computer use increased more than 15 percent over the period.
• Circulation, which measures how often library visitors check out print or electronic materials, increased about 9 percent nationwide, from 1.66 billion to 1.81 billion, during the five-year period.
• Nationally, library spending on day-to-day costs such as staffing and materials was $31.65 per person in 2005. The District of Columbia and local governments in Ohio and New York topped the list, spending at least $50 per capita. Local governments in Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee spent the least – less than $17.
• The number of Internet-capable computers soared 38 percent between 2002 and 2006, from about 137,000 to nearly 190,000. Libraries in rural states in New England and the Midwest led the country in public computers per person in 2006.
“You should be able to walk into any library and find Internet service. It’s free, unfettered access to information.” said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the foundation’s U.S. Libraries initiative.
About 600 computers are available for public use in the Pima County system, said Steff Koeneman, the library system’s community relations manager.
“They are one of our most popular features because a lot of people don’t have computers,” she said.
The county’s libraries see about 70,000 computer sessions a month, Ledeboer said.
“From the moment we open, people come in and book on to them,” she said.
The teen room on the second floor of the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave., is not only stocked with books, but also has teen magazines, CDs and DVDs, study areas and board games.
Alex Romo, 15, an incoming freshman at Pueblo Magnet High School, said that he uses the library for “computers, books, everything.” He visits at least two to three times a week, he said.
“I can’t go to my girlfriend’s house every day, you know. I really enjoy being here,” he said.
Romo said he uses the library’s computers to check his e-mail because he does not have an Internet hookup at home.
He plays online games with his friend and classmate.
David Lizarraga, 14, who was in the teen room with Romo, said he goes to the library at least four times a week, mostly to play online games.
“I don’t get books a lot,” he said.
“I do,” Romo said, butting in. “You see me at my house with like 30 books from the library.”
In one of the adult computer areas on the third floor of the main library, Nadine Edmonds, 26, searched for a job.
The library’s computers are so popular that she often has to wait for a terminal, Edmonds said.
“If you get here before lunch, it’s not that bad. Maybe 25 or 30 minutes at the earliest. But today it was 60 minutes,” she said.
Edmonds said that the trick is figuring out which floors have the shortest waits.
“You have to navigate the system,” she said. “For me, I’m just job searching, so it’s not like I have anything better to do.”
Despite the waits, Edmonds said, using the library is better than paying for Internet service at home; she does not.
“It’s a lot easier and it’s cheaper to go to the library,” she said.
Free Internet access is particularly important for low-income people, said Ken Flamm, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the role of the Internet in public libraries.
About a third of households with incomes below $25,000 have Internet access, according to federal data.
“In a world in which Internet access is increasingly important for all sorts of things, from getting a driver’s license to preparing a homework project or looking for a job, this is becoming a vital lifeline for the least advantaged segment of the population,” Flamm said.
Ledeboer said that since the Internet has become such an interwoven part of our lives, Tucson’s libraries help to “even the playing field” for those who can’t afford service at home.
“We feel in times of economic stress, libraries are more important than ever,” she said.
Despite their success in meeting new demands for information, libraries aren’t immune from budget cuts.
Portland, Maine, has proposed closing a branch that is seeing 8 percent growth in circulation, according to the American Library Association. Libraries in Modesto, Calif., reduced the hours and days they are open after their budgets were cut 14 percent.
The Pima County system has not cut hours, maintaining 16 libraries that are open seven days a week.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Ledeboer said.
Libraries fight to protect their patrons’ privacy
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON – Congress is considering a bill that would bar children who use computers in public libraries from accessing Facebook and other social networking Web sites without parental permission.
Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, the Illinois Republican who sponsored the measure, says the proposal would keep sexual predators from contacting minors who are using a library computer.
But the American Library Association says Kirk’s bill is yet another attempt by the federal government to interfere with library users’ privacy and free speech.
“If people in a community do not feel confident that their privacy will be protected, they cannot use the library as it was intended, for intellectual pursuit,” said Emily Sheketoff, who heads the association’s Washington office. “It will intimidate them.”
It’s the latest in a series of battles the association has been fighting with Congress over the past decade. Some highlights:
• In 2000, lawmakers required libraries receiving federally discounted Internet service to install devices to filter out obscene material. Libraries sued, but the Supreme Court upheld the law.
• A year later, following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, giving federal authorities more power to track the books and videos library patrons borrow and the Web sites they visit.
Despite objections from the American Library Association, the act was renewed in 2006 without significant changes, other than a requirement that authorities take extra steps in justifying their need for the records.
Supporters of the law note that two of the 2001 hijackers bought their plane tickets using a public computer at a New Jersey college library and that other members of the plot surfed the Internet using a computer at a public library in Delray Beach, Fla.
Earlier this year, a federal magistrate judge in Atlanta ruled the FBI did not violate the privacy of a Pakistani national in 2006 by logging onto the same computer the Pakistani has used and looking up which Web sites he had visited. Agents said the man was part of a terrorism plot.
• In 2007, the American Library Association helped persuade Congress to reopen several Environmental Protection Agency libraries the Bush administration had closed. The closures “created a serious obstacle to the public’s ability to gather information about key environmental issues,” according to the association.
• Kirk’s bill, the Deleting Online Predators Act, died in 2006 but gained new life this year.
Kirk says that as more children flock to social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, “we’ve seen a corresponding increase of online sexual predators” targeting those children.
But library officials say the legislation, while tackling a legitimate problem, takes the wrong approach in trying to keep kids safe from online predators.
Rather than outlawing certain sites, the American Library Association supports preparing kids and parents to deal with online threats at the library, home or anywhere else.
• Check out the library database at www.tucsoncitizen.com/KNOW
• You’ll also find access to free, searchable databases that explore crime, development, sports, schools, entertainment and more.
Pima County library usage
2002 2006 % change
Population served 816,400 907,448 11.2%
Visits 3,088,290 3,163,200 2.4%
Items checked out 5,761,423 4,734,109 -17.8%
Computers 268 310 15.7%
Operating budget $19,128,148 $20,415,450 6.7%