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Opinion: Thriving communities depend on smart investment in libraries

Libraries are changing. Though traditional activities such as borrowing books or reading still dominate use of libraries, Pew Research Institute studies show the American public today relies on libraries to teach digital skills, provide working spaces and address the disparity among residents who have or don’t have broadband internet services at home. Libraries also are breaking physical boundaries as they become more embedded in shopping malls, community centers and student unions on college campuses.

Librarians are champions for literacy of young children, adults seeking workforce readiness and seniors who are lifelong learners. They provide freedom of imagination through books and help curious minds cross the distance of the globe and experience different cultures and perspectives without leaving their chairs — all by using the latest technology.

The expansion of information and technological skills make librarians effective contributors to our local communities. Their skills and expertise are highly valued in the business world as well as the public sector. An increasing number of graduates with library and information science degrees are being chosen for unconventional careers. For example, recent Texas Woman’s University graduates have been selected for positions that include a law librarian with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a research analyst in an intelligence agency, a records manager for a municipal government office, a knowledge manager in a financial services firm and a curator of an arts foundation.

Even within our community libraries, today’s librarians also find themselves more valued than ever.

The librarians we educate are fierce freedom protectors. They defend the public’s right to access information and safeguard their patrons’ privacy in choosing what they read and information they seek. They help people get the best information when they need it — and they often help present this information using current technology and digital communication channels. In today’s confusing public discourse, librarians know how to separate factual information from fabricated news. They help people determine what is current, relevant, authoritative and appropriate information for their particular purposes.

But that’s not all.

Libraries are a safe haven for the community. Librarians in Ferguson, Baltimore, Dallas and other cities were “second responders” who welcomed students into their libraries when schools were closed; facilitated the space for meaningful civic dialogues among residents; and worked alongside neighbors to restore the physical and mental health of their own community. At times of crisis, libraries are welcoming oases where residents can clear their minds and nurture their brains.

Librarians are among the strongest advocates for our local communities. They are trusted and resourceful and identify community assets to build coalitions with colleges, schools, businesses and other organizations.

For example, librarians reinvest nearly $11 million of federal library funding annually to help Texas communities. Funding from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services alone helps more than 500 public libraries in Texas improve the quality of technology, keep children reading through summer months and provide free internet service to those who otherwise might not be able to afford the basic technology.

Federal and state funding for libraries is an essential public tax investment for our local communities. A study by the Bureau of Business Research IC2 Institute at the University of Texas found that Texas public libraries provide a return on investment of $4.64 for each dollar invested. This data-intensive research determined that collectively in fiscal year 2015, public libraries provided $2.6 billion in benefits while using only $566 million of public tax investment.

Along with arts, humanities and cultural programs, libraries continue to be the soul of our communities. Librarians are smart investors who facilitate technology innovation, safeguard the freedom of information and contribute directly to the economy and the quality of life in each of the large cities and small towns across Texas.

It is the collaborative efforts of librarians working with residents to care for our communities that keep Texas strong. It’s the collective voice of all who stand together to protect the soul of our communities that makes America great. Libraries deserve our continued support.

Jeng is the incoming president of the Texas Library Association and director of the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University.

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