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Libraries provide more than just books, movies and CDs

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By Mark O'Brien

ContextFlorida

Let’s give a shout out to some good news, but do it quietly because it involves libraries.

It’s refreshing in this anti-education, Tea Party era to see that so many people say that they support public libraries, those hotbeds of learning, entertainment and advancement.

A new study by Pew Research Foundation found plenty of support for libraries, with 63 percent of respondents saying that closing a library would have a “major impact” on a community. Maybe it’s because 54 percent of the respondents reported using a library in the past 12 months, underscoring a library’s value to people.

And people get more than books at a library. Many rely on their library for computer access — not everyone has a PC and high-speed Internet access at home. A library is extra-handy if you’re looking for a job and you lack a computer; there’s precious little advertising for help-wanted in newspapers anymore.

The library can also be a great resource for parents trying to keep their kids entertained at low cost and a handy place for senior citizens to spend some time picking out movies, large-print books and books on tape.

In my town, Pensacola, we have some of the most poorly funded libraries in Florida. We also have terrible statistics for illiteracy, obesity, cigarette smoking and babies born at low-birth weight. Odd how those things seem to run together.

And we’re full of cynics who say libraries aren’t needed. Let everyone get a computer, they say. Or go to Barnes & Noble, they say, as if everyone in the community has lots of folding money.

Actually, the cynics should visit a library, which may be one of the few public institutions to be integrated by age, race and income. Old guys read “The Drudge Report” Online while younger people email job applications. Homeless people get out of the weather and can stay inside as long as they behave. Families spread out to a library’s various rooms, especially on school vacations, and search for videos and books.

The Pew Foundation survey found that the strongest pockets of support for libraries were among women, African-Americans, Hispanics and white men with relatively little education or income.

This makes sense; they’re the people who use libraries the most.

But they’re hardly the only ones. When I was a kid, it was a library that showed me that a whole wide world existed outside my little Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Boston. The library’s books, way back in pre-Internet days, showed me about sports and history, civil rights and economics, foreign countries, literature and how to be an independent person.

I’ve been partial to libraries ever since.

Mark O'Brien is a former reporter, columnist and city editor for the Pensacola News Journal.