Sunday, June 17, 2018
News Roundup

Visit proves there's still a place for public libraries

I bet you've wondered — as I certainly have — how long public libraries can hang on.

When will computers and digital information become so cheap and universal — as democratic as libraries ever were — that paper-on-ink books go extinct? When will the expensive and substantial buildings that house these books go down with them?

It has to happen, right?

So is it anywhere close to happening now?

Yes, I know it's probably too early to ask, and I wouldn't bother if not for the finances of the Hernando County Public Library System.

The system has run through most of the state grant money that helped it get through recent lean years and is now facing a budget gap of $1.7 million.

So I went to the main library in Brooksville on Monday evening to find out who, exactly, still uses libraries.

Being an early e-reader convert for both buying and borrowing books, I was surprised to find that even after a heavy rain, most of the computer terminals were being used; even more surprising, at least a half-dozen patrons browsed the shelves.

One of them, Arline Fernandez, 67, a visitor from Inverness, said libraries are irreplaceable, not just for the books they house, but also as "a place where you can concentrate."

Jeff Doan, a 52-year-old welder, said he dropped his cable television and Internet connection because he was fed up with paying for the privilege of watching shows packed with commercials.

Though he's an avid reader, he said, on Monday he picked out a DVD.

"This is my TV now," he said.

Norm Cartwright, who gathered a stack of mysteries to add to the even larger stack of books selected by his wife, Brentcie, said he just prefers printed pages to screens.

"I have a cellphone not a smartphone," said Cartwright, 63, a retired Brooksville Police sergeant. "It would probably be smarter than I am."

Crystal Wentz, 19, is unemployed and wants to go to college, though she isn't sure what she wants to study and, for now, keeps her mind busy by reading thrillers.

"I come in just about every day," she said.

She doesn't have Internet access at home and neither, presumably, do many of the regular computer users at the library.

It makes me think that while user fees may be appropriate for parks, they aren't for libraries. The right to information is too basic, and the population of users, I suspect, is disproportionately poor.

But not all of them are. Nor are they all technological dinosaurs. Otherwise there wouldn't be so many of them.

The number of annual visitors to county libraries has remained steady in recent years at more than 400,000, said library services manager Adam Brooks.

So has the number of active cardholders — about 90,000, or more than half of all county residents.

One more local indication that libraries are still valued: A recent poll of Hernando residents showed that 41 percent ranked them as one of the county's most important services — a score slightly higher than for parks and only a little bit lower than for garbage collection.

Because I see the sales of printed books and newspapers as linked, I keep a close eye on them.

I remember a co-worker who liked to tell me that the Times would be a strictly online publication in five years. That was just about five years ago, and since then the circulation of our Sunday print edition has fallen only slightly.

So it is with book publishing. E-book sales have climbed at a stunning rate since 2008, but in 2012 they still accounted for only 20 percent of publishers' revenue.

So, libraries aren't going anywhere, not for a while, and neither is our responsibility to pay for them.

Print, thank goodness, ain't dead yet.

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