As communication and information become increasingly digital, libraries and librarians help people to keep up with what has become the norm. Libraries are, for many, the only option for accessing computers and the Internet.
“There’s a huge digital divide that still exists in this country and many people don’t have computers in their homes or offices, or can’t afford high-speed internet,” says Raphael, noting that 65 percent of libraries report that they are the only place for free Internet access in their town. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 95 percent of high-income households use the Internet at home while only 57 percent of lower-income households do.
A digital divide, which widens in rural and low-income areas, coupled with a national financial crisis, means that libraries play a crucial role in bridging the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet, and those without.
Raphael explains that in economically challenging times such as these, library use increases significantly. Despite decreased funding, branch closures, and reduced hours and staffing, many branches and library systems are posting their highest numbers ever in terms of circulation and number of patrons through the doors.
“Library use in economic recessions always goes up,” says Raphael. “It’s counter to what the funding is. When funding starts to be cut back, use goes up,” she continues, “and use has been increasing dramatically in the last couple of years.”
While the increase in usage can be attributed to people having less discretionary income for books and magazines, it is also due to libraries’ continued evolution. Offering musical scores, toys, art, CDs and DVDs, radiation detectors, portable smoke detectors, tools, kilowatt-measuring devices, zines, seeds, and more, libraries have become lenders of a variety of useful items.
Some even offer ways for patrons to contribute to collections through reviews, comments, the transcription of materials into digital format, uploading computer programs of their own design, and more.