John Gerzema: America’s Thriving Public Libraries
Once thought to be road kill from the Internet, Library use reached record levels during the recession as people sought education and community. Today sixty-eight percent of Americans now have a library card, the highest percentage ever.
The Texas sun beats down on a mud-colored landscape. A hundred yards to the south a light breeze ripples the water in a shallow pond. A small herd, maybe twenty head, collects where the land dips toward the entryway to a large structure the color of pale red rock. At high noon an experienced hand shuffles warily to the entrance, unlocks a big door, and lets it swing open. The crowd that had been waiting so calmly presses forward and inside. Most follow the leader, who ambles straight toward the computers, self-help books, and résumé-building guides. After all, this isn’t some cattle ranch. It’s the Dallas Central Library, where the pond is actually part of a public fountain and the herd is a crowd of people eager to access the Job Resource Center.
Like most libraries across the county, Dallas Central has seen a surge in visitors that began when the recession started. The Job Resource Center was opened in 2009 in response to the number of requests from people seeking help starting new careers. As Dallas librarian Miriam Rodriguez confirms, public libraries have become training centers for those who need to brush-up on skills, conduct a job search, or get free instruction in English as a second language. Rodriguez commandeered some space and some computers. “No investment was needed,” she explains. “We pulled from the collection. We had computers and we got volunteers. The volunteers were crucial.” Now at any given hour you will find a retired businessman conducting mock interviews with would-be job applicants and student computer experts teaching middle-aged men who have been laid off from their jobs how to use online employment sites.
But these days her work draws as much on her experience as a struggling immigrant as it does on her expertise as a librarian. As Rodriguez recalls, people who had been laid off, and many who were just frightened about their future, flooded reference librarians with requests for help with writing résumés and responding to job openings posted on the Internet. Others were already pursuing new degrees so they could make themselves ready to shift into new lines of work. “They say, ‘I’m taking classes at a college and I need the Internet to take a test.’ Or they are connecting to remote sites such as YouTube EDU to take online college courses.” The concept of lifelong education, long touted as the key to future employment, now seems to be accepted at all levels of society. “In the twentieth century people had one or two jobs in a lifetime,” adds Rodriguez. “Today it’s ten or fifteen. Learning is never finished.”
Once thought to be road kill from the Internet, Library use reached record levels during the recession as people sought education and community. Today sixty-eight percent of Americans now have a library card, the highest percentage ever. In the post-crisis age, it’s better to be inquisitive than acquisitive.
The Central Library in Dallas is one of fifty companies interviewed for the Wall Street Journal best-seller: Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell and Live.
John Gerzema (@johngerzema/twitter) is president of Brandasset Consulting and Young & Rubicam’s Brandasset Valuator, the world’s largest database of consumer behavior, attitudes and values. Michael d’antonio is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, author and reporter