Letters to the Editor

Larry Black — Investment in library has paid off
Thursday, June 27, 2002

Central Ohio is home to one of the best public library systems in the country.

That is no idle boast. Over the past three years, the Columbus Metropolitan Library has been ranked in the top three public libraries in the United States, including a top rating by Hennen's American Public Library Rating Index.

Once considered an undiscovered treasure, the system's Main Library and 21 branches are vibrant destinations for thousands of people every day.

Last year, these libraries were visited more than 7 million times by people borrowing more than 14 million items, accessing Internet sites and finding answers. Only the library systems of Los Angeles County and Queens, N.Y., loaned more items -- and they serve populations three to four times larger than does the Columbus system.

Much of the credit for this success goes to the citizens of central Ohio. This is a community of readers and library supporters.

Voters in the library's service district have approved and renewed tax levies supporting the system since 1976, providing the funds to create and maintain a world-class library. As an institution, we are privileged to have the support of the Friends of the Library, volunteers, partners and the corporate community, along with revenue from the state of Ohio.

Our library system has benefited from the guidance provided by a board of trustees, unpaid volunteers who donate hundreds of hours of time to provide insight into the system's long- range goals and directions.

The library has placed a premium on outstanding customer service. Members of the staff, in public service and behind the scenes, demonstrate a remarkable dedication. I have been honored to call them colleagues.

Our community has received an impressive payback for its support of the library. As the system has positioned itself as the center for lifelong learning, it has played an increasingly important role in enhancing the quality of life of those we serve.

The mission statement says that the library will "advance literacy by encouraging children and families to read.''

The library works to prevent adult illiteracy by helping young children develop a love of reading. It aids parents and caregivers in preparing children to enter school ready to learn to read. Library activities, such as story times and the summer reading club, engage youngsters' imaginations and creativity.

Specialized services, including our Raising Readers program and the MetroMouse Mobiles -- bookmobiles named after the library system's mascot -- create opportunities to bring books and reading to children when their home environment cannot.

Public libraries are the major points of online access for people without Internet connections at home, school or work. Internet access and electronic databases provided by the library give customers at even the smallest neighborhood branches nearly the same access to information once available only to Main Library customers.

Now, the library's Web site provides access to many of the library's resources 24 hours a day (www.columbuslibrary.org).

Central Ohio employers need workers with constantly updated skills. The library provides employees, business owners and entrepreneurs with resources to keep pace with the changes in any field. Our customers take advantage of these resources to be successful today and in the future. We need to encourage this type of self- improvement if Columbus is going to maintain its reputation as a city with a highly educated work force.

What does the future hold?

As the Information Age continues to evolve, access to information will become more critical for accomplishing everyday tasks.

Libraries will continue to be a key resource for finding that information.

New technologies and information formats will continue to emerge, requiring librarians to determine and prove their value in a public library setting. They will grapple with how best to incorporate these advancements into the mix of library services, while maintaining a balanced collection that meets our community's diverse needs.

Changes in technologies will compel changes in library facilities. Fifteen years ago, architects never imagined the need to accommodate hundreds of computers in library design. While impossible to predict how new technology may alter libraries, it undoubtedly will.

Intelligent people will continue to disagree on how to strike a balance between open access to Internet information for adults while protecting children from sites that are inappropriate. Technology has moved faster than public opinion and the law. National debate on this important topic will continue.

Ohio has excellent libraries because of our state tradition of funding public libraries well. That tradition may be in jeopardy as the state struggles with budget deficits, but one hopes that lawmakers will consider the enormous benefits libraries provide everyone.

Over the doors of the Main Library are the words "Open to All". Those words best summarize the unique nature of the Columbus Metropolitan Library's role in the community. As I leave the director's post after 18 years, it is my sincere hope that the citizens of central Ohio continue to support one of our most valuable institutions.

Larry Black is retiring Friday as director of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Copyright © 2002, The Columbus Dispatch