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Libraries Writing New Chapter

Tom Condon

February 06, 2011

Like many of you I was scratching my head, alternately angry and bewildered, at the efforts of Enfield's town fathers to censor the film program at the local library. Those worthies coerced the library into pulling the 2007 Michael Moore documentary "Sicko" about the U.S. health care industry from a Friday film program, after complaints from a couple of residents.

After an outraged response from the region, including a sharp uppercut from the Connecticut Library Association, the brain trust backed off and will allow the film to be show as part of an expanded film series that presents "multiple points of view."

The whole thing was absurd. Banning an Academy Award-nominated film that was shown in local theaters (and apparently is available at the Enfield library) is going to keep the genie in the bottle? No one will learn that there might be problems with the U.S. health care system? Did anyone on the council read the paper last year?

In addition to treating its residents as simpletons, the Enfield leadership pushed against one of the most important trends in the country the transformation of public libraries.

Libraries are not the quiet, staid, predictable institutions of yore. Libraries are now vital, multimedia centers of their communities, as much about helping people find a job as helping them find a book. Take, for example, the Hartford Public Library.

On a recent evening, the Hartford library had a program on how someone with a past criminal conviction may be able to get a pardon. The state's large cities bear the brunt of getting ex-offenders back into society. It's a difficult task in large part because it's so hard for ex-offenders to find work. But many who have finished their sentences and kept their records clean may be eligible for a pardon or expungement, which makes it much easier to find a job.

In showing them the process, in partnership with the Norwich-based Connecticut Pardon team Inc., the library provided a meaningful community service. And this was just one of hundreds of classes, lectures, forums and other programs that will take place there this year.

The Hartford Public Library's main branch was once a dull box of a building, almost invisible on Main Street. The interior was felt heavy, dark and compartmentalized; nothing was easily connected to anything else. But a $42 million renovation, completed a few years ago, changed it, physically and spiritually. It became an open, airy, welcoming building. Its leaders promised it would become a focal point for civic life. It has, and is.

The library is where most of the city's political forums and debates are held. There are art shows, concerts and, yes, films. People go by the thousands to apply for jobs, learn English or learn to read, get passports, learn computer skills. There are many children's programs, including homework help. And people, bless them, still borrow books.

This is the trend across the country. According to a survey by the American Library Association and the University of Maryland, 88 percent of libraries now offer access to job databases, and 75 percent to civil service exam materials. And at least two-thirds of library staffs help applicants complete online job applications, according to another study. At present, 82 percent of libraries now provide wireless internet access, up from about 54 percent in 2007. In more than 70 percent of cases, the libraries are the only source of free Internet service in their communities.

The importance of 21st-century libraries has not been lost of some of the country's top political leaders. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, now in his final term, built or fully renovated an astounding 45 libraries in the city, including the spectacular Harold Washington Library Center. Seattle, Denver, San Antonio and a host of other cities have also opened grand libraries.

Libraries are making progress in spite of budget cuts across the country, and more cuts can be expected here. But as columnist Neal Peirce reported recently, many communities have fought back and kept the damage to a minimum. And that's good. People bettering themselves and trying to get jobs are what made this country great, and what may get us back on track.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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