PUBLIC LIBRARIES IN
THE INFORMATION AGE

If Andrew Carnegie came back to tour the nation's 8,929 public libraries, he would observe the following:

  • Users of all ages exploring not only books, but small discs called "CDs," double reels called "videos," and something called "the Internet";

  • Library rooms filled with pre-schoolers at day care and adults in continuing education classes;

  • He'd find a select group of high school students spending up to 14 hours a week learning "information literacy skills";

  • And in his beloved city of Pittsburgh, he'd see a program designed to enhance school curricula through a "cybertour" of city neighborhoods.

At each of his stops, the journalist in Andrew Carnegie would prompt him to ask for the local newspaper. Among the stories he might find are the following:

  • A recent report that half of America's youth are at risk of not entering the mainstream of American life;

  • An alarmingly high drop-out rate of high school students in inner cities;

  • Continued violence among urban youth;

  • A segment of America which can afford online services, numerous entertainment options, and a variety of new phone services; and another segment which is forced to choose between basic telephone service and cable, or neither;

  • A poll of New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents demonstrating they know more about the mayor of New York City than they do their local politicians;

  • A growing segment of the workforce compelled because of downsizing, mergers, and other corporate restructuring activities to learn new skills mid-career; and

  • The "Internet goldrush"; i.e., the recent surge of Web advertising and appeal to the Internet's large population of users with money to spend.

Given this mixed picture of America -- its demographics, economy, education/literacy levels and labor market -- one matter would be very clear to Carnegie: that many forces are transforming U.S. society and, therefore, the ways in which public libraries will play their traditional roles. These roles are: enhancing education, providing access to information, serving as a center for recreation, and building community.

Today, libraries nationwide are capitalizing upon new technologies and striking new partnerships with both community groups and government agencies to provide a wide variety of services. In pursuing these activities, however, public libraries face significant constraints. Public sector financing for all social services is being squeezed; new competitors are angling to provide, and charge for services public libraries provide for free; and technology is changing so rapidly that today's investment is becoming tomorrow's burden. Given these obstacles, the fact that public libraries continue to push the envelope is a tribute to Carnegie's belief that information must be accessible to all.

On December 8th, 1995, experts in communications, economics, information and library sciences, public policy, publishing, and technology gathered at the Library of Congress to discuss the significance of these developments for the future of public libraries. The first-of-its-kind symposium was sponsored by: The Library of Congress, The Coalition for Networked Information ("CNI"), The Council on Library Resources ("CLR"), The Public Library Association ("PLA," a division of the American Library Association), The Urban Libraries


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