Okay, so obviously you know what a library offers: free access to books for your community. Sounds great, but do you really utilize that service very often? When was the last time you and your family ventured into a public library in search of new reads? With popular book delivery services like Amazon weeding out chain booksellers and even libraries, it's easy to forget how incredibly instrumental public libraries can be to our areas. Yes, it's awesome that we can order our next favorite novel at the click of a button and that so many have access to that ability, but libraries still offer resources that online booksellers fail to provide.
There are more than 500 public libraries throughout the state of Texas and more than 5,000 librarians in employment. That's not even including our academic libraries on college and university campuses. Despite the increase in online reading and book sales, the frequency of library visits has remained stable among many groups of people since 2013. Many children benefit from reading programs offered at their local library, and even adults take classes on technology and languages.
Even if you haven't set foot in a library since you were an undergrad, there are thousands of people who make monthly (or even weekly) trips to these centers of learning. When asked in 2016, roughly 66 percent of Americans stated that if public libraries were closed, communities would suffer.
Currently, the funding of public libraries is at risk due to proposed changes in financial support for Innovative Approaches to Literacy (administered by the National Department of Education). Texas receives roughly $11 million that goes to local libraries, interlibrary loans, summer reading programs, technology programs, continuing education, and more. In the near future, that number may be much smaller, which could result in depletion of library resources and even closures throughout the state.
So, let's talk about some of the enormous benefits that libraries provide for their Texas communities. Obviously, they offer free access to millions of books for people of all ages, but the funding they currently receive helps them do so much more than that.
Early (And Late) Literacy Programs
Most public libraries offer various events for young readers, from story times to literacy classes lead by trained experts. One might wonder "but why does my two-year-old need to start reading if his/her teachers will instruct them once they start school?" Well, installing early literacy skills in your children can be extremely valuable.
Research indicates that as much as 90 percent of a child's brain development has occurred by age five. Children who are read to tend to have better vocabularies and are more likely to succeed in school. Reading skills can also boost self-esteem and even improve health. Sounds wonderful, right? And it is!
Unfortunately, not every child in our state has access to these educational opportunities at such a young age. According to the Texas Interagency Literacy Council Report (2012), "Texas' literacy rate is a large and growing problem." Roughly 3.8 million adults in Texas do not have a high school diploma, and literacy rates are reflecting a lack of education in various groups of citizens.
The lowest literacy rates can be found among those living in poverty. Approximately 1,700,000 Texans under the age of 18 live in low-income areas. In 2007, only 21 percent of poor children (ages three to six) could properly identify the 26 letters of the alphabet. Right now, Texas ranks 50th among states in percentage of adult population with a high school education.
My point is this: Although Texas is full of bright minds and educational opportunities, we still have a long way to go in terms of teaching our children and preparing them for further learning opportunities in high school and college. Libraries contribute substantially to this process, and without them, our literacy rates and percentage of citizens who graduate high school could decrease even more.
If you were to do some research on the opportunities your local library provides, you'll probably be surprised by the breadth of the courses and presentations they offer. I know my local library offers instructional classes on everything from PowerPoint to Photoshop. There might even be classes on subjects you've never even imagined learning about, like historical figures or laser cutting.
These classes aren't just interesting and fun: For some, they can be life changing. Learning to master Microsoft programs or other forms of technology can mean the difference between two career paths for someone who is unable to afford a college education. Many libraries also offer other forms of adult education, like presentations on sign language or instructions on how to create an app for smartphones. Not only are these courses available to everyone in the community, but they are also often lead by experts who really wish to help others learn.
Access to Literature for Everyone
Yeah, yeah, this is a no brainer, but seriously: Libraries ensure that no one goes without books, and that's huge. In low-income areas, statistics indicate that children have much less access to books in their homes. Although it would be wonderful if every family could invest in a home library for their children, it simply isn't possible for some. Libraries allow families without discretionary funds to educate their children and instill a love of literature in children and teens. It makes sense: the more you surround a child with books, the more they'll read. Take away the books, and a passion for reading may never grow.
As this Dallas Morning News Editorial states, "Education is the best way out of poverty." Texas is ranked number 21 in our nations school system, and there is much more to be done when it comes to promoting literature and learning in our communities. Supporting public libraries is a fantastic way to start, so don't hesitate to stop by and take advantage of your local library.