Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Recent articles:Libraries are essential

Dear library patrons,

In her recent New Yorker review of Cass R. Sunstein’s new book, On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, Elizabeth Kolbert provides more than ample evidence that we continue to mistake information for knowledge, and knowledge for wisdom. Not that library advocacy is the purpose of her essay; indeed, libraries are never mentioned. Nonetheless Sunstein’s book is a study of the Internet and other emerging technologies, and their aiding and abetting the “growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see,” and I might add, hear and eventually say. Again, according to Sunstein, while many of the major Web sites remain the most popular-CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times-people increasingly turn to information in a customized form, via e-mail updates, RSS feeds, and other vehicles. These allow access to one’s favorite topics-and similarly oriented correspondents-without the discomfort of sifting through, or exposure to information and points of view which in Kolbert’s words, might be “less congenial.”

Libraries are not the sole means of addressing this imbalance and its pernicious results. It is worth noting that with its shelves of periodicals and wide ranging selection of books, DVDs and CDs, -and diverse patronage-libraries can be a counterbalance to the tendency to seek out only those people and that information we agree with, while discarding or ignoring reports and people that might raise questions. While never directly addressing the distinctions between information, knowledge and wisdom, there is ample evidence that libraries provide the resources, expertise and diversity of perspectives to encourage critical thinking, interpret and assess information and nurture the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom.

Kolbert’s review is not the only recent article which merits further consideration. First Monday’s November 2 installment features a lengthy but worthy article entitled “Public Libraries and the Internet 2008-2009 Issues, Implications and Challenges”. While the article confirms what we long suspected based on observation, namely that “patrons and communities have embraced the Internet-related aspects of library services as essential contributions of the library”, it also confirms several points we would rather not contemplate. Chief among these are: patron and community needs for Internet access are fast outpacing the ability of public libraries to meet these needs; and, while libraries in urban areas continue to experience growing demands for Internet services, the library hours of operation have decreased on average, with especially large drops among libraries in high poverty and urban areas. This second point is particularly resonant in Norwich. In each of the last 10 years, Norwich has ranked among Connecticut’s 25 most distressed municipalities. Like its peers in other urban areas, the Otis Library lost operating hours as state grants, which are essential to Norwich’s operating budget, have contracted and the city’s capacity to provide support has diminished. From an average of 59 service hours per week in 2008-2009, the library experienced a contraction to 46 service hours in 2009-2010. The timing could not be worse: “people are using library computers to apply for jobs, and assistance at record numbers, but have to contend with fewer hours that the library is open, inadequate numbers of computers and connection speed, and time limits that constrain their ability to fill out online applications, send e-mail messages to potential employers, and search and apply for assistance.” Fortunately, the Otis Library’s computers are new enough, and the connection speeds fast enough to cope with some of these shortcomings for the near future. Demand is high enough however, to require restrictive time limits of 45 minutes per session.

While the news may not be entirely felicitous, both articles provide ample evidence that libraries remain essential community assets. The multiplicity of ideas and perspectives embodied in library collections, and the provision of free access to the Internet in library computing facilities are two ways in which libraries, and ours in particular contribute to a healthy and sustainable community.

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