With increasing reliance on the Internet for entertainment and information, the merger of the Minneapolis and Hennepin County libraries seems like an almost quaint act of increasingly irrelevant institutions. On the contrary.
Even as broadband subscribership grows and online resources expand, public libraries continue to play important, and counterintuitive, roles in communities across the country. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 61 percent of people with access to the Internet have visited public libraries in the past 12 months, compared with only 28 percent of those without Internet access. That is not to say that having Internet access causes library use, but it does point out that Internet access does not fully replace the need for libraries.
The Pew survey also showed that those with household incomes over $40,000 were more likely than those from poorer households to have visited a public library. Similarly, two-thirds of those who have earned a college degree have visited a public library in the last year, compared with 44 percent of those with a high school diploma.
Library usage actually decreased with age, the survey showed, contradicting the commonly held belief that younger generations are abandoning the real world in favor of the virtual. Of members of Generation Y (those aged 18 to 30 years), 62 percent had visited a public library in the past 12 months, the highest rate of any age cohort.
More than two-thirds of those visiting the library used a computer there and those with Internet access outside the library were more likely to use computers in the library than those who do not have Internet access. In an era of increased laptop computer ownership, this validates the Minneapolis library's move to make free wireless Internet access available at all libraries, even as it provides hundreds of computer terminals.
The figures come as no surprise to people who have visited public libraries recently. They are not just warehouses of books and documents, if they ever were, any more than librarians are mere filing clerks. Rather, libraries are core community resources in a learning society.
Strong library systems make for stronger communities, and as the Minneapolis Public Library becomes part of the larger Hennepin system, we need to continue to invest in this increasingly important community asset.