“American Libraries”: Media, Technology, and Community in an Onsite-Online World

Those who are wondering what has happened to our media clearly aren’t paying attention to what our colleagues at American Libraries have been producing. While some of our brightest thinkers, including Clay Shirky, are discussing the loss of traditional media and wondering what the future holds for those of us who love our newspapers and other publications, American Libraries continues, with little fanfare outside its own industry, to provide a 21st-century “publication” that seamlessly blends print and online offerings, content that serves its readers well, and information that appeals not only to its primary audience of American Library Association members but also to anyone interested in or touched by what libraries offer—which pretty much covers almost all of us these days in one way or another. And the funding model is straightforward and apparently sustainable: a combination of dues paid by American Library Association (ALA) members and revenues from advertising in the print and online versions.

The publication’s latest digital supplement, Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2011-2012, overtly focuses on how technology in libraries serves members communities throughout the United States. As the main title implies, however, it serves an equally valuable purpose: providing an example of how the interweaving of libraries and communities produces a tremendously positive impact on our quality of life even in the most challenging of times.

Just looking at the format of this publication goes a long way in knocking down some disturbing misconceptions about libraries, reading, and access to the first-rate information that makes a difference in our lives: we’re looking at a thoughtful, well-researched, and finely edited document that can be read online regardless of where we are (in front of a laptop or on the run with mobile device in hand, if we have access to the right tech tools) as well as in print if we are inclined to take the time required to produce a paper copy. It is well organized, with a standard table of contents that also works well in some online environments by jumping us to specific content at the click of a mouse or the touch of a finger on a mobile device’s screen.(We’re not yet perfect, mind you; the links didn’t work on my Android tablet, and the text was more than a little challenging on a 7” screen.)

When we dive into the content—which, ultimately, is what we’re seeking, regardless of format—we find some encouraging news within this thoughtful report: “Libraries continue to transform lives by providing critical services and innovative solutions to technology access, in spite of years’ worth of consecutive and cumulative budget cuts,” we read at the beginning of the supplement’s executive summary. “More Americans are turning to their libraries for access to essential technology services not found elsewhere in the community, including free computer and Internet access, technology training, and assistance with job-seeking and e-government services.”

It’s easy to be quickly buried under statistics and generalizations, so the writers and editors in the publication consistently return us to the “so what?’ at the heart of any exploration of what libraries produce in collaboration with community partners/members: skill-building workshops and courses that lead to employment and financial literacy in an era where to be financially illiterate is to be locked out of life-sustaining opportunities. Equally importantly, members of library staff are at the forefront of promoting and providing digital literacy—another life-changing survival skill that continues to elude many in search of work, health information, and many other essential resources that would otherwise be beyond their reach as they attempt to sift through the overwhelming amount of information that threatens to drown them rather than lift them closer to their goals.

It’s a far from perfect world that we find within Libraries Connect Communities and its special sections focusing on libraries and library users in Georgia and Idaho; members of rural communities served by libraries—representing approximately half of the libraries’ audiences across the country—see that their libraries “can neither provide adequate volume of technology training…nor keep pace with new technologies.”

Yet the role libraries play is consistently apparent: “Increasingly, communities across the U.S. depend on public libraries for a ‘triple play’ of resources; 1) facilities and physical access to technology infrastructure; 2) a wealth of electronic content; and 3) information professionals trained to help people find and use the information most relevant to their needs.”

And those of us connected to libraries and involved in training-teaching-learning depend on first-rate publications like American Libraries to help us remain in touch with the needs of those we serve. See how our information sources are continuing to evolve to reflect changing world in which we live and work and play. And find new ways to incorporate innovative responses to the challenges we face so we, too, can contribute to the vitality of our local and extended communities in an onsite-online world.

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