Being literate doesn’t mean what it used to — at least not according to Beth Wilder, executive director of the Literacy Council of Central Alabama, who said libraries are now having to adapt to the needs of a digital society.
“We’re becoming a digital world. The definition of literacy now includes computer skills. You have to have those skills. Twenty years ago you didn’t need computer skills to function, but now you do,” Wilder said.
According to her, the Birmingham Public Library system is an integral part of providing these new, computer-oriented literacy opportunities not only for children, but also for the “64,000 adults in Jefferson County who are considered functionally illiterate.”
Currently, the Birmingham Public Library Foundation is looking to raise $50,000 by Jan. 1, 2014 in order to update the library’s collection as well as their online databases. The donations are tax deductible and 100 percent of the proceeds will go towards updating material and online archives, according to Kelsey Bates, director of development at the BPLF.
These online resources and databases, which can be accessed on computers and tablets, are perhaps the library’s most crucial resource in the new frontier of digital literacy, Bates explained.
“We’re providing more e-books than we ever have before. Our usage has actually gone up 100 percent in the last two years. So people can get library cards now and download e-books onto their Kindles or iPads from home. In a few weeks, you can renew that particular book or it just disappears from the device, essentially returning that book to the library,” Bates said.
The BPL, Bates explained, has focused on the transition into the digital literacy frontier by adapting to the public’s need for internet access. According to her, there are still too many Birmingham residents who do not have a computer or any other portal to the vast resources available online. By providing free internet access to the community, Bates hopes that libraries can bridge the gap between illiteracy and knowledge.
“We are doing more and more with computer training and computer access. So if people don’t have a computer, they can come down to the library and use one of ours,” Bates said.
Bates and Wilder both agree that literacy is no longer confined to just ink and paper, and libraries are having to adjust in order to keep up with the times. “The library is the backbone for every community, every neighborhood. It’s how we reach people and how we get people books and interested in reading. The public library system is how we tackle the illiteracy issue,” Wilder said.
In the next few years the central branch of the BPL will undergo renovations that will make it easier for people to access their online databases. “[The renovations] are going to change the way people use our libraries. We want to change the space so that people can use the library for what people actually use libraries for, which isn’t necessarily checking out books; it’s using internet resources, as well,” Bates said.
However, she said, budget restraints in recent years have nearly cut their funding in half, putting a strain on the resources that the library can provide. “In 2009 our budget was cut significantly due to the recession. Our budget used to be around $1.5 million. This year our budget was close to $800,000. So we’ve had to cut way back on buying new books over the last few years,” Bates said.
Despite the budget cuts and the shift toward online reading, Bates is confident that the public library system will continue to be used and treasured by communities everywhere for generations to come — it’s just a matter of adapting. “People still come to the library and check out books, just not nearly as much as they used to. People come to the library for programs, for training, they come to events and exhibitions. We’re not using libraries the same way we used to,” Bates said.
The BPL is also home to one of the largest collections of Civil Rights Era documents, which people from all walks of life come to read on a daily basis, Bates explained. Part of the library’s renovations will be to make these archives available online. She said, however, that people still like to come in and touch the actual documents themselves — to be able to feel history — which is perhaps an experience that will eventually be lost in digital translation.
Wilder believes that the public library system is the key to being able to provide digital literacy skills to those who don’t have access to computers on their own. Without that resource, she said, those people would be totally left behind.
“In 2014, all the GED classes will be done online. There won’t be any more pen-and-paper tests. So it’s huge for us to get these people who don’t have technology skills up to speed, or they are just going to fall further and further behind,” Bates said, adding that whether or not people want to believe it, “Technology is the way people are going to read in the future. Whether the people my age want to admit it, the pen and paper are going away. Libraries are just going to adapt to that.”