Libraries bring awareness, services to communities

Posted April 04, 2012, at 3:37 p.m.
Last modified April 04, 2012, at 4:36 p.m.

Next week is National Library Week, but did you hear the news? Libraries are dead. Passé. Useless. Gone. Nobody uses them anymore. People read ebooks, they Google their research, and librarians are a dying breed.

Hogwash.

Last year, Maine libraries transferred 1.6 million books, audiobooks, and DVDs between them that were requested by patrons. That’s more than one item for every Maine citizen — and shows that we’re very much using libraries.

Barbara McDade, the librarian at the Bangor Public Library, knows about the public belief that libraries are no longer needed. When the BPL requests operating funds from the City of Bangor — which provides 60 percent of the library’s annual budget — it can be tough to convince city councilors. But what many don’t realize is how lucky Mainers are to have the library system they do have.

“No other state has the cooperation among libraries that happens in Maine,” McDade said. “We are all poor, so we have to work together so we have enough resources that we can help our users.”

But libraries usually struggle to get their operational funding, even though many people are unaware of these struggles. McDade related a story of a librarian on the MSL’s online forum who reported that her town informed her that the library is supposed to be self-supporting.

“She says, ‘How can I do that?’” McDade said. “We’ve lost the concept of a free public library.”

Libraries can’t subsist on overdue fines and certainly can’t charge memberships, book-checkout fees, or fees for the many services they have beyond books. Valerie Osborne of the Maine State Library, who works out of the Bangor Public Library, says that the idea that libraries are just about books is what’s really passé. Take research, for example. Sure, Google is great, but how do you know if the results are what you need?

“The interesting thing is there’s so much garbage out there that it takes a trained professional to decipher the wheat from the chaff,” said Osborne.

The search engines’ first goal is to serve up ads and make money. Top results are usually paid results, and the non-paid results are often due to Web designers employing search-engine optimization to get their sites high in the rankings. That doesn’t make them the best results.

Osborne related the tale of a student researching Dr. Martin Luther King in the early Web days, and having the Web site of David Duke, a former Klansman, being the top result. Clearly, the site was biased, and the student couldn’t figure out why.

“It’s an eye-opener, because kids aren’t necessarily able to discern that,” Osborne said. “The school librarians and public librarians help kids and adults get through that stuff.”

For that matter, anyone doing research might be fooled; after all, we’re usually researching because we lack knowledge about a particular topic. Librarians are trained in a wide variety of research methods and are able to guide and teach others.

For example, younger people may be used to navigating online, but older people may not be. Libraries frequently help patrons in searching and applying for job. Osborne cited statistics from April 2011 that said there were 25,000 jobs available in Maine, but that 96 percent of them could be found only online. For a laid-off millworker who hasn’t had to look for a job in decades, that can be challenging.

Beyond all this, there’s something else important about libraries: They’re community centers. You can get books and do research, but you can also take classes, attend lectures, join reading groups, and enjoy historical displays. Or you can stop in to leaf through magazines, check your email, or even just socialize.

Many services that Maine libraries offer are accessible from home, too. Most notably is the MARVEL! service, which provides Maine residents with hundreds of categories and countless resources, from free magazines to legal help to encyclopedias and dictionaries.

The Maine State Library offers online podcasts to show people how to use many of the MARVEL! features. Then there’s the Maine InfoNet download library, which member libraries pay into, pooling money to buy content.

Maine led the way in 1996 when it became the first state in the nation to have all its public libraries and schools connected to the Internet with high-speed lines. This was thanks to a $20 million settlement with NYNEX for rate overcharging of Maine residents, and it brought Maine to the forefront of online connectivity. Maine saw the trend towards higher-speed lines, and opted for T1 connections instead of dial-up modems. The move was a good one.

Today, Mainers enjoy a unified cooperative of libraries in schools and communities. The best way to help celebrate this year’s National Library Week is to check in with your local library to see what’s going on. Chances are there will be plenty.

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