Oregon's state librarian says local communities and residents have an obligation to continue supporting their public libraries, and the local economy will suffer if they don't.
MaryKay Dahlgreen is visiting the Rogue Valley to deliver a lecture at Southern Oregon University today. In her talk — "We Don't Need Libraries Anymore, Do We?" — Dahlgreen will describe how libraries are leaving their old role as a place where people come to browse physical books, but will remain a vital part of local communities.
"We're moving from paper-based to digital and virtual collections," says Dahlgreen. "We're becoming people who get information to you."
She will speak at 4 p.m. today in the Meese Meeting Room of the Hannon Library as a guest of the Friends of the Hannon Library. Her talk is free and open to the public.
Funding for public libraries in Southern Oregon is threatened along with other public services as Jackson County copes with the loss of federal timber subsidies. Dahlgreen called that situation "absolutely tragic, but, to be honest, the community is going to need to find the money because it's an essential part of community development, economic development and the educational system."
Faced with a similar situation in 2007, Jackson County voters opposed a ballot measure to fund libraries and they closed, "but it was telling (that) they reopened them, though with reduced services, so libraries are obviously important there," Dahlgreen said.
If voters turn their backs on libraries again, she said, it will rapidly affect growth and jobs because many people don't want to live in or move companies to a community that doesn't support libraries.
"Not to sound too harsh," she said, "but local communities have to decide that libraries are important ... . I would tell voters that they are responsible to children and to the economic development of their region. Research shows that libraries play an incredibly valuable role in the community, bring significant return on investment and help the economy grow."
As traditional funding pools drain, Dahlgreen said, libraries are diversifying their money sources and forming foundations and seeking grants.
"It gets to the point where the community is going to need to step up and do it."
Libraries are getting more and more digital and service-oriented but are not becoming obsolete, Dahlgreen said. Instead, they are shifting their mission to delivering digital works to your computer and offering a "community setting" for alternative, creative learning.
"The big push is from collections to creations," she said, with less emphasis on "things from authors and artists." The new and imaginative growth areas are fan fiction and "maker spaces," she said. Fan fiction is creative writing in response to novels, in the style of "Fifty Shades of Grey," she explained, while maker spaces bring people together in libraries for arts, literature and crafts events.
An article in School Library Journal calls maker spaces "red hot ... the concept of hands-on programming in libraries — school, academic, or public — appeals to the broad spectrum of information professionals, from techy geeks at one end to traditional handcrafters at the other ... we've been doing this in children's programming for years."
Appointed state librarian in 2012, Dahlgreen had 16 years experience there as youth services consultant and development program manager.
While some may think the Internet has lessened the need for libraries, they need to understand that an enormous amount of information is not on the Internet, it's not all free and the Internet "is like the biggest library in the world, but with the books strewn all over," Dahlgreen said.
"You can google something and get 100,000 hits and then what?" she asked.
As Web fees for information go up, libraries have the advantage that they can get licenses to use databases, she said, and loan them to everyone.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.