Column -- Relevance of Libraries

City council candidate Chuck Swore said he nearly had a “heart attack” when he heard a new public library might cost $45 million. That’s some pretty dramatic sticker shock.

“We don’t need the same kind of library,” Swore said at a candidate forum. “The Gazette can tell you that. People don’t read the same way they used to read. They go online. You can go online and get about any book you want.”

Swore’s right about the fading fortunes of newsprint. But he’s wrong about the fading relevance of libraries.

I don’t like picking on Swore. I know he wants to spend tax money wisely. So do I.

We can have a debate on how much needs to be spent on a new facility to replace the flooded central library, on top of state and federal bucks. We can argue locations, timelines, amenities and parking.

But I hope we steer clear of arguments that we should downsize our ambitions because libraries are somehow a less-than-necessary, bygone relic.

In fact, I’d argue that in this dazzling, dizzying digital age, they’re more important than ever.

Earlier this month, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released a sweeping report titled “Informing Communities — Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” It argues that the health of America’s democracy and communities rests on plugging troubling gaps between the nation’s information haves and have-nots. Access to broadband Internet, for example, is a luxury for most low-income households. And that access gap leaves many on the political, social and economic sidelines.

Libraries, the report contends, should become vital centers for digital and media training. They should also serve as highquality online access hubs and central sources for civic information.

“Digital access is essential to first-class citizenship in our society,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president and CEO. “If a job application at Walmart or McDonald’s must be made online, how can we pretend that we have equal opportunity if significant portions of our communities don’t have access? Libraries can be part of the solution.” Unlike newspapers, circulation at libraries is steadily growing. Between 1998 and 2008, visits to Iowa libraries rose 41 percent and the number of cardholders jumped 22 percent.

Roughly 2 million Iowans have active library cards.

Although numbers for the fiscal year that ended June 30 are still being compiled, State Librarian Mary Wegner said all evidence points to more increases. Iowans are voting with their feet. Candidates should take note.» Contact the writer at (319) 398-8452 or todd.

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