Posted by: bluesyemre | April 11, 2019

In a world of #Google and #Amazon, #libraries rethink their role

library dg

Libraries today offer much more than just books and information. They’ve become hubs where patrons can access resources like laptops, e-books and hotspot devices.
San Francisco Public Library

More information is available online than ever. Libraries are stepping in to make sure everyone can access it…

One night a few years ago, Tony Marx was closing up a Bronx library when he noticed a kid sitting on the steps. The boy was pecking away on the oldest laptop Marx had ever seen. Puzzled, Marx asked him what he was doing.

The boy told Marx he was doing his math homework. The assignment was online and the boy’s family couldn’t afford broadband at home. So the youngster camped out on the library stoop to pick up its leaked signal.

“Holy moly,” Marx, the president and CEO of the New York Public Library, remembers thinking. “‘In the information capital of the world, this kid can’t do the math homework we want him to do to succeed.'”

Since then, the NYPL has rolled out a host of services aimed at closing the digital divide, which is exactly what it sounds like: the gap between those who can easily get online and those who can’t. The famous library — who hasn’t seen Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions who guard its main entrance, in the movies? — provides computers and laptops at its locations, and lends out mobile hotspots for months at a time. And like at Starbucks, the Wi-Fi is free.

The NYPL is far from the only library rethinking its role in the digital age. Around the globe, libraries are repositioning themselves to meet the needs of a world where almost everything on the shelves can be found online. Many see themselves as centers of digital culture offering classes in the latest tech, such as 3D printing and digital video editing. Key to that mission is helping patrons who can’t afford internet service, like Marx’s young friend, find a way to get online.

As of Sunday, libraries across the US began celebrating their evolving mission as part of National Library Week. Melinda Gates serves as the honorary chairwoman of the annual event, which American Library Association started in 1958. Gates is a good choice. She and husband Bill began funding computers, internet access and software for libraries in low-income communities through a foundation they established in 1997. The foundation wound down in 2018, but gave away more than $1 billion worldwideduring its run.

Providing internet connections is increasingly important for libraries as more aspects of our lives move online. Forty-seven percent of US households earning less than $30,000 don’t have broadband, according to Pew, and 44 percent don’t have a desktop or laptop. At the NYPL, three quarters of the people who check out the hotspots live in households earning less than $25,000 a year, Marx says.

When the program first started, Goss wasn’t sure how popular it was. But she quickly found out when she removed the computers to clean them and perform other maintenance. During their absence, members of the community streamed into the library to ask where they’d gone. “That was the first indication that people had really started to use them regularly,” she said.

It’s no surprise the initiative has been so popular. In an internal survey conducted two years ago, patrons cited access to Wi-Fi and computers as the top two reasons they go to the library.

Wash and Learn has really been successful because it’s been able to meet people where they are without adding further inconvenience,” Goss said. “It’s hard to get a parent to come to a session at the library every Wednesday at a certain time if they have a weird schedule. Whereas if you develop this space in a laundromat, they have to wash their clothes at some point, so they can come whenever they want to.”

Looking forward

The digital shift taking place at libraries across the country has understandably led to some uncertainty and concern about their futures. In a since-deleted Forbes op-ed published last year, one writer suggested that Amazon should just replace libraries to save taxpayers money.

It’s no surprise that suggestion didn’t sit well with librarians.

“It was so shortsighted because libraries are so much more than a warehouse of books,” SFPL’s Lambert said. “We’re a community space that’s free and open to everyone without needing to buy anything.”

As technology continues to develop, libraries will likely do everything they can to keep up or stay ahead of the curve. But in a world where so many interactions happen online, perhaps one of the best assets they can provide is being a physical space for people to convene.

Marx, the president and CEO of the NYPL, says he lost track of the young patron who was camped on the library’s steps doing his math homework. Still, the library executive says the experience inspired him to put more emphasis on getting people into his institution and online.

“People will still be coming in for books and special collections, but my guess is over the longer haul, libraries will end up being the civic spaces, particularly in poorer neighborhoods where people have no place else to go that’s quiet,” Marx said. “Placeswhere they can sit, where they can have a computer and be treated with respect and not asked for their credentials.”

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