Our Views: When we build, improve libraries, we invest in the young, the poor, our overall quality of life _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Stephanie Warren -- East Feliciana Parish 4-H hosted a garden workshop July 16 at the library in Clinton. Participants learned hands-on how to plant a seed and explored a variety of garden topics, including soil science, harmful and beneficial pests, pollination, garden planning, and what plants need to grow. East Feliciana Parish 4-H agent Leanna Cupit showed participants how to germinate seeds using a plastic glove.

cross south Louisiana, communities are making major investments in public libraries.

Lafayette’s library system recently reopened a newly renovated Main Library. A new downtown library is in the works in Baton Rouge, a nice complement to the city’s recently opened new Main Library in Independence Park. Last May, New Orleans voters approved a new tax to improve library service for the city’s chronically underfunded system.

This kind of spending throughout the region is a vote of confidence for pubic libraries and their role in advancing Louisiana’s quality of life. But is library spending a good bet on the future?

That question comes to mind with the recent release of a new report from the Pew Research Center, a national nonprofit that regularly tracks library usage across the country. The bottom line: Library usage has ebbed nationally the past several years, but Pew researchers conclude that it’s too early to tell if this is a trend.

Some key findings:

  • Forty-six percent of all Americans 16 and older say they visited a library or a bookmobile in person in the prior year. That’s roughly comparable to the 48 percent who said this in 2013, but it’s down from 53 percent in 2012.
  • Twenty-two percent of those 16 and older have used library websites in the past year, compared with 30 percent who said this in 2013 and 25 percent in 2012.
  • Twenty-seven percent of those who have visited a public library have used its computers, Internet connection or Wi-Fi signal to go online in the past 12 months, compared with 31 percent who said this in 2012.

The national numbers don’t necessarily track what’s going on in south Louisiana communities, though. East Baton Rouge Parish Library Director Spencer Watts, for example, recently reported that circulation in his library system is up 8.1 percent from last year. The bump might be driven, at least in part, by the opening of the new Main Library, because new facilities tend to attract patrons.

It seems that quality facilities and service still can be a big draw for library users, even as the digital revolution changes how information is consumed.

Another big takeaway from the Pew report: Lower-income Americans, more than anyone else, look to libraries for help in building professional skills and seeking employment. That finding has special relevance in Louisiana, where the need to lift more families into the middle class is particularly obvious.

The Pew report suggests that librarians must work harder than ever to maintain and grow patronage. But it also points to a continuing need for good library service — and the wisdom that local taxpayers have shown in supporting library improvements.