Are books passé? Have library stacks been outpaced by memory sticks?
Some would question the relevancy of libraries in our uber-cyber world, considering them but a quaint vestige of the past. But that's not only a facile assessment, it's simply untrue.
This week, April 15 to 21, is National Library Week, a time when libraries and the people who use them celebrate the contributions of all libraries, librarians, and library workers in our nation's schools, campuses, and communities.
There is much to celebrate because libraries across the country are enjoying a golden age, and our own Community Library is no exception. Flourishing in one of Ketchum's most notable buildings, we are also continuously expanding into the Internet universe.
The facts speak for themselves: Library use is up nationwide. Nationwide more than 2 billion items were checked out last year, and librarians served nearly 1.8 billion visitors. In 2006 at the Community Library, 137,078 patrons availed themselves of our services and programs, one third of them children.
The age of technology has complemented our services and expanded our reach. This is because libraries are about more than providing free access to quality information in a world of data overload.
Libraries are about community.
Libraries provide us with a physical gathering place, a community crossroads for people of all ages, ethnicities and economic means. We reach out to the under-served, including the Spanish-speaking community. Six librarians at the Community Library are taking specially tailored language classes in order to better communicate with Spanish-speaking patrons. A recent grant from a local foundation will help create many other language-learning opportunities in the library.
Libraries also are leading the way in forging creative partnerships with other cultural and educational institutions. The Community Library has offered or has plans this year to offer joint programs with the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, College of Southern Idaho, the Environmental Resource Center, the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, the Wood River Jewish Community, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, and others.
These efforts aren't simply social. Education and literacy and lifelong learning are essential to staying competitive in a global society. Although we live in a privileged community with fairly impressive literacy statistics, more than 8 million American children, grades four to 12, struggle to read, write, and comprehend on the most basic levels, according to federal studies. Only three out of 10 eighth-graders are reading at or above grade level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Society as a whole pays, according to the National Governors Association, who recently reported that deficits in basic literacy skills drain as much as $16 billion annually from businesses, universities, and under-educated workers themselves in lost productivity and other costs.
Libraries are part of the solution. For many patrons, especially those who don't have computers at home or cannot afford to purchase books, or sophisticated language-learning software, or subscriptions to magazines, public libraries make the difference between decent wages and economic disenfranchisement.
In the case of the Community Library, a privately supported public library that does not receive tax dollars, this important work is made possible by the Gold Mine thrift store and by the generosity of individual donors. Each year we must raise $600,000 above and beyond what the Gold Mine provides in order to keep the doors open and the lights on.
Our library and libraries everywhere are more relevant than ever, providing personal high-quality information service in this era of information overload. Our multi-faceted, multicultural, multilingual resources help provide a bridge to the best conceivable future for many.
And admission is free.
It's democracy in action. There's nothing passé about that.
Colleen Daly is the executive director of the Community Library in Ketchum.