The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 1, 2014

Budgets

Librarians making tough choices


— The budgetary problems of cities, towns, counties and other governmental entities in southern West Virginia have been well-reported over the past year.

We’ve heard the words of mayors and councilpersons, county commissioners and state lawmakers, about how we need to make do with less.

In fact, we expect to hear more of that when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin gives his State of the State address in Charleston on Jan. 7, a day before the Legislature convenes.

It is doubtful the governor will propose sweeping new taxes to deal with budget shortfalls in the state, lawmakers say.

So that leaves municipalities, counties and state government itself to make a new year’s resolution to trim some fat.

A top target on the list across the nation for the past few years has been the public library.

Across the country, reports Library Journal, cities and towns are looking to balance budgets, and part of that is likely to be accomplished in 2014 by closing library branches and reducing hours.

For many people in our interactive, high-tech world, the need for a physical library seems quaint. With Google, Yahoo and Bing, the search engines can give us documents and archives with a click of a mouse. Or, in more and more cases, we can download an e-book instantly with a finger-swipe across a smartphone screen.

Are libraries still needed in today’s modern digital world? More than ever, librarians say.

State librarians are determined not to go down the path of irrelevance without a fight. In West Virginia, they say, digital literacy is a problem that remains to be conquered. And they’re taking on the task.

One of the library directors who is helping with the drive is Raleigh County’s own Amy Lilly.

“There’s a misconception about what the need is with digital literacy,” says Amy Lilly, director of the Raleigh County Public Library. “We assume because a lot of people have smartphones or know how to go on Facebook that they know how to operate a computer. … we have a need with our patrons to know how to fill out job applications online.

“Maybe that coal miner hasn’t had to apply online before and always did it with pens and paper. Here they’ve lost their job and haven’t been job hunting in 10 to 15 years and now it has changed. Now you can’t get a job without filling out an application online.”

Lilly also says local libraries are working with people to help them set up e-mail accounts, a necessary step in searching for a job nowadays. And they’re working with schools to ensure students are kept up-to-date on technology as well.

Beckley-Stratton Middle School’s after-school program and teaching kids about e-books being two cases she cited.

“With the Internet, online tools and e-books the new normal, digital literacy is here to stay,” West Virginia Library Commission’s Secretary Karen Goff said.

We commend the attempts of Ms. Lilly and other librarians to keep their facilities relevant and attempt to justify their expense.

As tough budgetary choices loom, we think librarians in West Virginia are far ahead of the curve. Their aggressive outreach to let the public know of their new direction in the digital world — and their contribution to our communities — is something other local and state agencies and programs ought to try, too.

It might go far in helping them to hold onto their own funding in 2014.