By Nick Dimassis, assistant director, East Regional Library System
The “Got the people, but not the skills” (October 26, Star Tribune) editorial stated that “a highly educated, appropriately skilled workforce is key to reinvigorating job creation,” and that although not in a “position to close the skills gap with a major surge in public spending,” Minnesota can “do more to make the most of its existing resources.” One of those existing resources not mentioned? Your public library.
There are over 360 public library outlets in Minnesota, each part of a statewide network whereby any item on any shelf in any library (including academic) can be borrowed by any citizen. That includes delivery to your local library for pick up. Sound expensive? All you need is your public library card.
Many question the relevance of the public library in this electronic age. Perhaps dulled by the incessant refrain of “Everything’s on the internet,” many wonder, “Who needs a library anymore?” Answer: We all do—whether we use it or not. According to a 2010 report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, per capita visits to public libraries increased 20% from 1999-2008—the period during which most of the gadgets we take for granted hit the market. If these are supposed to replace the library, why do folks keep coming? Because the library adopts and adapts the latest technologies toward one end: providing access to all.
The editorial identifies secondary and postsecondary educational systems as essential to preparing a workforce for an economy that demands greater service-oriented skills and higher credentials, and online education is seen as an innovative delivery model. Public libraries daily support such options by offering access to computers, scholarly databases, test proctoring, study rooms, eBooks and, yes, print materials.
The public library not only supports the various educational systems, it does something none of the others do: it provides unfettered access throughout one’s life. At any time, you can walk into your public library and use the resources freely. No questions asked. No tuition. (True, the library is not “free”: statewide per capita cost is $33 a year, or, about one-third the cost of one college textbook.)
Public libraries have not sat on the sidelines while the economy gets pummeled week after week. No, they offer Minnesotans the resources and confidence to get back on the field, for themselves, for their families, for their communities. Many have availed themselves of the opportunities and found resources on resume-building, interview techniques, and job searching.
Besides the everyday, point-of-need assistance from trained staff, many public libraries also offer classes for those who recognize they must educate—and re-educate—themselves for a new future. Legislation initiated by the Minnesota Library Association was recently passed providing for the appointment of a public library advisor to the Governor's Workforce Development Council. Your public libraries have never been very good at being mere spectators.
In fact, libraries have a clear understanding of their historic role in educating and workforce creation. The editorial mentions the need for “creative entrepreneurs” to help get the economy going. It is not a coincidence that one of America’s most successful, Andrew Carnegie, had a lifelong commitment to the public library.
As a penniless immigrant from Scotland, Carnegie was forever grateful for what a library offered him. And he in turn offered it to others: first to employees via a company library and then to all via matching grants for public libraries. Minnesotans knew an opportunity when they saw it; 66 “Carnegie” libraries were built prior to his death in 1919. Minnesotans today are no different. They know the value of their libraries and are not afraid to demand a return on their investment.
Your public library today is as relevant as it ever was. If you don’t believe it, go to your nearest branch and look around. Watch how it’s being used. Are there kids and teens enjoying the safe learning spaces? Are there parents and grandparents instilling a love of learning into the toddlers—or maybe just seeking a little quiet time of their own? Are the computers being used? Then, ask the librarian what resources might interest you.
Make the library relevant to you. It’s yours, after all.
Minnesota library delegation at 2011 National Library Legislative Day (left to right): Nick Dimassis, article author; Michael Scott, SELCO assistant director; Senator Al Franken; Peter Pearson, Friends of the St. Paul Public Library president; Carol Walsh, MALF