The fact that the United States, the greatest nation in the world, has an illiteracy problem is appalling. The fact that we have a problem with literacy - people having the ability to read but choosing not to do so - is almost incomprehensible. Certainly, people are rushed and very busy, but I am concerned that if it cannot be put on a bumper sticker or contained in a 10-second sound bite, too many of us will not invest the time to consider an issue.
Public libraries are an integral part of the educational infrastructure, providing information and services to students of all ages whether they are enrolled in formal courses, homeschooled, or are lifelong learners. They also play an essential role in other community activities, such as economic development.
Of course, public libraries are at the forefront in the fight to promote literacy. Unencumbered by a curriculum or test scores, public libraries are able to focus more on the sheer pleasure of reading. I feel that promoting reading remains the most important mission of a public library.
If people are not readers, they will not be thinkers. If people are not thinkers, they are too easily influenced by others or controlled by technology. Readers and thinkers will know how to use technology and the great revolution of electronic information. It all has to start with reading.
Libraries continue to be both wonderful direct service providers and cooperative partners in a variety of critical endeavors. What other institutions serve so many individuals and groups in such diverse and positive ways?
Job information, home repair, background for a school report, holiday recipes, vacation planning, college selection, stock quotations, local history, great poetry, self-improvement materials, classic novels, a fun book to read?
Technology needs to be embraced as a tool, a very efficient and effective way to make vast quantities of information available to more people. Access to that information will become critical, and public libraries will continue to play a significant role in guaranteeing access, organizing information and providing guidance and orientation in its use, just as we have with print.
What the world has seen with technology in the last few years is unlike anything in the human experience dating back to the 1400s when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type, and the printing press was born. With his creation, information suddenly became easily portable and books became much more available and much less costly.
The technology of the book continues to serve well even after 500-plus years. The book is not disappearing. It is hard to imagine curling up with a good database as you can with a good novel or interesting biography.
What libraries and their public are seeing now with electronic information is an amazing enhancement to print information. Some reference materials that were at least partially out of date as soon as they were published can now be updated almost instantaneously on-line. The Internet provides access to networks with more information than anyone previously dreamed possible.
The public library has a long, proud history of reliable information dissemination to the public. The Internet is the next plateau of that effort, and public libraries will provide access to the Internet and other forms of technology for millions of Americans.
The Internet is a very important service tool. Its potential is enormous. But, like any tool, it must be used wisely and well to get the desired result. It is not a panacea and is far from perfect. We must remember that the Internet is still very young and needs attention, nurturing and guidance.
Libraries have assumed a significant role in providing the public access to such tools and a basic understanding in how to use them. Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL), for example, has public Internet access at all of its 15 branches. Four branches have formal computer centers, which cluster computer workstations with Internet access and an impressive array of software. At all locations, library staff and volunteers help people get started in the use of search engines, word processing and other tools.
Demonstrations and tip sheets are available. These include safety on the Internet to help individuals and parents understand how to use it appropriately. BCPL is pleased to be cooperating with the Baltimore County Schools' excellent Parent Internet Education initiative. BCPL is also using technology to enhance service whenever appropriate.
These examples are not unique to Baltimore County. Libraries around the country and in the state of Maryland are working energetically to use technology to improve the scope and delivery of service wherever possible and without sacrificing traditional critical service, such as providing books.