In an age when people get news on their phones, watch videos online and read books in the cloud, one might argue there’s little need for the brick and mortar buildings and paper books of public libraries. But a recent report from The Center for an Urban Future argues that this is not the case. In fact, David Giles, author of “Branches of Opportunity,” argues that public libraries have become more important than ever on the community level, playing a critical role in helping people find information, apply for jobs, and upgrade their skills.
In a recent interview with MetroFocus’ Rafael Pi Roman, Giles noted that New York’s main public branches have been forced to reduce their average operating hours to five days a week, down from six days a week in 2008. This brings New York’s branches to an average of 43 hours a week, with branches in Chicago and Columbus averaging roughly 50 and 70 hours a week, respectively. “Since 2008, about $68 million have been cut from the libraries’ operating budgets,” said Giles. “That means the libraries can’t keep their doors open. It means they can’t hire new people to meet the demand.”
How have libraries adjusted to these obstacles? Giles discusses the role of public libraries in the digital age in this web extra video with Rafael Pi Roman:
New York’s 206 local branches alone saw over 40.5 million visitors last year, according to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. While libraries work to adapt their offerings for an increasingly digital population, research shows that they are also in a unique position to bring vital services to a demographic in need: those without internet access at home. Data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that 26% of Americans age 16 and older use library computers to go online. This graphic breaks down how library patrons utilized their free internet access:
Despite increased demand for digital services, Giles points out that libraries continue to make a significant impact with their in-person programs. Over the past decade, New York’s branches have seen a 40% spike in program attendance, filling a gap for immigrants, seniors, and after-school youth during difficult economic times. WNYC reports that in the Bronx, where poverty and unemployment are highest, public library branches have at least doubled their library attendance since 2002.
“I think the biggest innovation is the programming, the educational programming, the classes that they’re putting on,” says Giles. “There are more of these than ever before, and I think this is the most important thing that’s happened.”