April 4-10 marks National Library Week. This year, more than ever, it is important to note the important role of Maine libraries.

Aurelia C. Scott uses the new self-checkout at the Portland Public Library on March 31, the first day it was open to the public since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last March. Scott wanted to come and pick up her books in person on the day the library reopened. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When I tell people I am a librarian, I inevitably hear how wonderful libraries are for providing story time for kids. Yes, they are! Libraries support early childhood literacy and students as they grow. Libraries help narrow student achievement gaps, offering after-school support and summer learning opportunities to kids of all backgrounds. Lower-income students are especially at risk of falling behind when school is out. Libraries also make a difference within schools. Students in high-poverty K-12 schools are almost twice as likely to graduate when the school library is staffed with a professional librarian. The benefits continue through college, as students’ academic success is related to library usage, including improved student retention and an enhanced educational experience.

While supporting children and students is a core library value, it is important to note that this is not all that is happening at your library.

In 2021, it is exceedingly difficult to accomplish daily tasks without the internet. Many communities and households in Maine do not have access to the internet, let alone high-speed, reliable broadband internet. Public libraries provide free access to the internet for all. During the pandemic, many libraries left their Wi-Fi on 24 hours so patrons without internet access could work remotely in library parking lots. In low-income households, roughly three in 10 adults don’t own a smartphone; more than four in 10 don’t have home broadband services (44 percent) or a traditional computer (46 percent), and a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

In addition to providing the internet and computers, knowledgeable librarians provide research support to those solving the problems of our day: scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers and educators. Libraries provide access to published information, which is too often locked behind a paywall. In a world of “information overload” and so-called “fake news,” librarians offer digital literacy support in locating and evaluating relevant information highlighting various perspectives and points of view. Librarians will be here to support communities as our economy recovers by helping library users create resumes, apply for jobs or start small businesses.

As the legislative chair for the Maine Library Association, I am privileged to connect frequently with library colleagues and hear their stories. Maine’s libraries have stepped up day in and day out through the pandemic – helping patrons navigate the overwhelming amounts of COVID misinformation and register for vaccines, delivering books to homes when people are wary of going out, even just picking up the phone to casually check and say hello to isolated community members. Maine library friends, thank you for all you do!

While libraries are trusted institutions rooted in the communities they serve, their relevance is (sadly) continually questioned in an age when information is readily available online to anyone, anywhere with access to the internet. Libraries are relevant – just ask the people who use them every day for the above reasons and more.

Today, many Maine libraries are faced with aging infrastructure and budgets burdened by the pandemic. The Maine Library Association has asked that our lawmakers support The Build America’s Libraries Act (S.127/HR 1581). Introduced in January by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and in March by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., it would provide $5 billion to repair and construct modern library facilities across the nation, especially in underserved areas. The bill would enable libraries to rebuild, refurbish and expand their facilities – as well as improve our digital infrastructure and purchase devices – to meet the needs of Maine’s growing communities. We are hopeful this funding will come to fruition.

In the meantime, I invite you all to check out your community’s library page to see what they offer. From online story time for kids to online knitting groups for older Mainers, librarians are supporting our communities in a variety of creative ways. You will likely be both surprised and delighted!

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