A recent Pew phone survey found that the majority of Americans support their public libraries and that 95 percent “agree that the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.” Yet only about 54 percent actually used a public library in the past year. While most Americans value public libraries for “promoting literacy and a love of reading; improving the quality of life in a community and providing many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere, they are split on whether public libraries are as essential as they were in the past for finding information.” You can read the entire article and see a summary of the findings here.
More from NPR’s Keys to the Whole World: American Public Libraries. Laura Sydell reported on the launch this last spring of a program to canvass the nation’s libraries for rare and important archival material that can be digitized and available for free to the American public through the Digital Public Library of America. Scholars and researchers are already excited at the prospect of all this great stuff in one place. According to one researcher, it would have been really hard to find the documents he needed by doing a general Internet search. He said, “It’s hard to know, apart from … lots and lots of browsing, where those collections are available.” Another benefit was pointed out by the San Francisco Public Library’s archivist, Susan Goldstein, who finds so many of the materials they have archived in such poor condition that the digitizing effort serves as a preservation tactic for fragile items. Many of those involved in this project are dedicated to the idea that this material is to be freely available to the general public, grammar school kids to PhD researchers. For now the massive amount of scanning and uploading involves older materials–books, letters, diaries, newspapers, police records, and more–where copyright and ownership are not an issue. For the future, the relationship of libraries and publishers will need to be addressed before any grand scale digitizing can happen.
(Shown above right: A letter written by onetime slave owner William H.W. Barnwell.)