There was a time not too long ago when people were talking about the demise of libraries. The Internet, where readers can effortlessly consume all sorts of digital data, was supposed to be the death knell of the quaint community library. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, and we can thank the folks who run our libraries for preserving the best parts of the library experience while also changing with the times and technologies. They have stayed successful and relevant during turbulent times in the print world.

While one can still take solace in the quiet sanctuary of a municipal library to read a good book, newspaper or latest periodical, local libraries are morphing into a community space for daytime and after-school activities, as well as nighttime retreats for musical performances, book signings, book groups and speakers’ series. For example, South Portland Public Library hosts a regular after-hours concert series and Raymond Public Library is literally bursting at the seams with all sorts of community events (from plant sales to crafting clubs) that bring people through the doors for something other than a book. Our libraries are appealing to more than just the serious reader; they are aiming to serve as a community center. And by doing so, they are thriving in the age of the Internet.

Local libraries require, and are worthy of, our investment. Lacking a local Andrew Carnegie, benefactor of some of the first public libraries, the local taxpayers provide much of the funding. And they’re doing so at a great clip around our region. Gray residents recently opened the doors on a $1.5 million expansion. Cape Elizabeth voters will likely see a ballot question in November on a renovation to Thomas Memorial Library. Westbrook is going ahead with another renovation to its historic Walker Memorial Library, correcting mold problems and introducing a new reading room. Taxpayers are usually willing participants when asked to fund something related to their library. Libraries are pretty much universally seen as a worthy investment since they open minds, bring people together and inspire us to learn new things.

Not to rest on their appeal, library directors have been wise to embrace the changing technologies often reworking their physical layouts. Most libraries offer multiple computer terminals, as well as free book downloads via e-readers and tablets. And, going the extra mile, they offer classes and one-on-one consultation on how to use the computers and sometimes-tricky handheld gadgets.

For many years now, libraries have also been a salvation for those who can’t afford a home Internet connection. Employment seekers head there to troll online job boards, curious minds open their world via the worldwide web, and people can even file their income taxes via the library’s connection. Rather than turning their backs on the new ways to learn, library directors realize, rightly so, that having free access to the Internet these days is as valuable as rows and rows of book stacks.

While libraries have molded their offerings to change with the times, their importance may get even more crucial in the not-too-distant future. Bookstores seem imperiled as people gravitate to online booksellers. The marketplace evolution is taking place quickly as the big-box bookstores, which once pushed out many of the independent bookstores, are now being derailed by If the bookstores go away – which we hope never happens, since there’s nothing like spending a few hours in a bookstore – people who prefer non-digital media will rely on libraries even more. We applaud libraries’ efforts to move with the times and tastes, and we hope they will always be the place for those who need and want access to various forms of media, including good old books.

–John Balentine, managing editor

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