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Are libraries still relevant? Ask someone looking for a job

Editor’s note: Last week Linda Minor, the reference services supervisor at the Forest Grove Public Library, addressed the Forest Grove Noon Rotary Club. The title of her talk was “Are Libraries Still Relevant?” Here is an excerpt.

It’s an exciting time to be in the book business, whether you are a publisher, an author, a book seller, a librarian or just a consumer. The advent of digital technology has spurred tremendous changes in how we use and read books and other formerly printed-only information.

How does the library fit into this picture? I bet I get at least one article every week in my email box which questions the necessity of libraries in today’s digital world. Why do we need libraries if we can just Google our information needs and download our books and movies without ever leaving home?

Are libraries still relevant? Will they be relevant 20 years from now? I think it’s a fair question — we should always question the use of government-funded resources.

In order to begin to answer that question, we have to first look at the mission of the library.

After 22 years of working at the Forest Grove Library, I have come to know firsthand that having access to information — that is, having access to a public library — can change a person’s life. Libraries aren’t just about warehousing books. Libraries have never just been about books.

They are about making those connections with people — about providing just exactly what someone needs at that moment, something that will bring about understanding or enjoyment or satisfaction or enlightenment.

As human beings, we are empowered by information. We are hardwired to learn, to grow, to use our ingenuity to make life better in some way for ourselves and/or for others.

In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges we face right now, in the midst of ongoing budget concerns, is how to adapt to the online environment in a way that allows access to everyone and maintains a balance with other media, especially print resources.

The euphemism for this is “bridging the digital divide.” There seems to be an assumption in our society that these days, pretty much everyone has access to and knows how to use a computer. That simply isn’t true, at least not yet.

Those of us for whom computers are a constant companion and have become a way of life sometimes forget that that’s not true for large numbers of Americans.

Picture someone who has worked, say, in construction, or maybe at a sawmill for the last 20 years or so, but their job has gone away and they need to find a new job for the skills that they have.

They might want to apply to Home Depot or maybe a manufacturing plant. They have never had a reason to use a computer.

Imagine what it’s like to learn that you have to apply online — there is no other way. So you hear that there are computers at the library for the public to use, and you come and get a library card, with a password, so that you can get on a computer, which you’ve never used before.

The librarian helps you get logged onto a computer and shows you how to put in a website address. Once you’ve been shown where to start you discover that you have to set up an account on that website with a user name and a password.

Then you learn that you have to have an email account, which requires a username and a password. You also have to have your resume in an electronic format in order to be able to send it along with your job application.

These are almost insurmountable difficulties, and the people that persevere through this entire process and actually apply for a job have my utmost admiration. We see this happening in our library every day.

Obviously we don’t have the staff resources to teach people how to type or use a computer, but we do our best to connect them with other places or volunteers who can help them with those particular skills.

Books aren’t going to go away anytime soon, but who knows what the future holds? Libraries are about so much more than books, and if we value our libraries as I believe we should, libraries aren’t going away any time soon, either.



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