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Originally published Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 12:03 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Public libraries: enablers of Americans' dreams

It's amazing, writes columnist Neal Peirce, that many of the nation's libraries are able to maintain the bulk of their services and adapt to growing needs during a recession, even in the face of snowballing funding cuts by their local governments.

Syndicated columnist

America's public libraries, fast turning themselves into "one-stop shops" for digital job searches, appear to be staging one of their great historic transformations.

Responding to a rush of recession-time visitors, 88 percent of our libraries now offer access to job databases. And at least two-thirds of library staffs are helping applicants complete online job applications, according to a national survey by the American Library Association and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As for access to free wireless services, 82 percent of libraries now provide it — up from just 37 percent four years ago. In two-thirds of cases, the libraries are the only source of free Internet service in their communities.

What's amazing is that many libraries are able to maintain the bulk of their services and adapt to growing needs during a recession, even in the face of snowballing funding cuts by their local governments. More than 55 percent of urban libraries are reporting budget cuts, and a quarter have felt obliged to cut hours or close branches. Fifteen percent reduced their hours of operation in 2009 — three times the number reported in 2008. And 50 percent report they have insufficient staff to meet their patrons' job-seeking needs.

But they're not taking it quietly. In Indianapolis, neighborhoods around the branches facing possible closure became very active, holding read-ins, marches and letter-writing campaigns. In Camden, N.J., one of America's poorest cities, a fierce public outcry has followed the threat to close the entire library system.

And when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed 37 percent cuts to his city's library budgets, advocates argued it would be the first time in the system's 138-year history that libraries would be open just five days a week. And they came up with a strong productivity argument. In 1978, when there were 61 L.A. libraries (there are now 72), 1,459 staff librarians served 6 million visitors. Under Villaraigosa's budget, they noted, there'd only be 848 staff slots — to serve 18 million visitors.

The silver lining for communities, note library sources, is that threats of actual branch closures create such a strong pushback that most communities compromise with cuts that go no further than constriction in staff or branches.

The reality, says Audra Caplan, director of the Harford County, Md., Public Library and president of the Public Library Association, is that the role of public libraries has changed dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years. And computers and job-search assistance, while highly significant, aren't the whole story.

"We've turned ourselves into community centers," notes Caplan. "We have meeting rooms that get booked by community agencies, chess clubs, any not-for-profit. We bring in authors, we sponsor civic engagement-type programs. And we're attracting a larger share of the population — even teens, or parents with toddlers."

So what about serious research? "It's still healthy," Caplan insists. She acknowledges Google and Wikipedia are popular on the available computers. But libraries also subscribe to specialized and sometimes costly subscription databases — business, legal, health and other — and electronically extend the access to even their smallest branches. As for books (remember them?), libraries' per capita circulation has increased roughly 20 percent over the past decade.

And in a sense, libraries are as varied as America. Many provide specialized services, including translation and English instruction, to America's large populations of new immigrants. Some let patrons check out not just books but fishing poles, backpacks and garden tools.

And central libraries, notes Robert McNulty of Partners for Livable Communities, can be "the great good place in the city" — as a literacy, Internet and special film center, or as a place for lectures, for local performing arts and exhibitions. Or as a coffeehouse. Or as an information center for visiting tourists, or a safe place for kids.

Andrew Carnegie's original idea in founding his string of free public libraries, McNulty notes, was that they'd be gathering places for young people — that once drawn there, they'd learn to read. So Carnegie built a boxing gymnasium into one of his Pittsburgh libraries, a swimming pool into another.

But right now, it's computer access that leads the library parade. "Beginning computer skills are especially important for dislocated workers," says Brian Clark of the Nashville, Tenn., Career Advancement Center. "Having computer skills," he suggests, "won't necessarily get a person a job. But it means the door won't be slammed in their face" — in other words, before they can even state their case.

Opening doors? It's true that funds saved or restored to libraries may mean deeper, sometimes very painful cuts in other parts of city and county budgets.

But what's more American than open doors? Seen this way, libraries have been enablers of generations of Americans' dreams. And with a little luck, they'll help pull us out of our current economic morass too.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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