Our Library Must Develop 2020 Vision

The Eugene Public Library received its year-end holiday gift early this year. Voters gave the library’s leaders five years of funding certainty when they passed Measure 20-235 in November.

It’s hard to imagine how different the world will look in 2021, but that’s the world our library should begin planning for immediately. That future will include a few certainties that will affect the library directly. Information will become even more abundant. Leaving our houses will become more optional, with drones and driverless cars delivering whatever can’t be digitized. Whatever we expect will be happening inside our libraries’ walls, we must start planning for it now.

What will be a library’s raison d’etre, when everyone can easily learn that the French phrase means “reason for being” and its first known use was in 1864? If information is readily available from anywhere, why will our citizens five years from now believe they still need libraries?

I hope our leaders are considering Netflix as a case study. Netflix used overnight mail to give people movies to watch without wandering through a video rental store. Netflix offered a larger selection and a more convenient experience, but competition and technology reduced those advantages over time.

Redbox kiosks began appearing around grocery stores, intercepting shoppers and promising immediate gratification. Meanwhile, Internet technology was progressing enough to deliver full movies to people’s living rooms in just a few minutes.

Suddenly, overnight delivery was no longer the fastest or the most convenient way to receive a movie to watch. Over the span of mere months, the company remade itself as an online business with overnight mail as an added service for those who would rather keep things the same. Our Eugene library has five years to engineer a similar transformation. I hope they don’t wait too long to get started.

Fortunately, they can learn a lot from a local project that’s beginning its second year. The Imagination Library gets physical books into the hands of very young children, hoping the books will build lifelong habits for reading and curiosity.

Thanks to the Eugene Public Library Foundation’s fundraising, every child in Eugene under the age of five will be sent a new book every month, free for the asking. A newborn enrolled in the program will have 60 books in his or her personal library before attending kindergarten.

We may not erase homelessness in Eugene anytime soon, but there’s a good chance we can eliminate childhood booklessness by 2020.

Parents or grandparents can sign up any child under five years old with a Eugene address at http://imaginationlibrary.com. Anyone interested in donating to this groundbreaking program can learn more at http://imagination.eplfoundation.org.

Eugene has approximately 8,000 children who qualify for the free books. After only 13 months, over 3,000 of those children have been registered. Over 28,000 books have been received by those Eugene residents this year.

If the foundation can show that mailing books to youngsters makes them and their families better library users, the project should be added to the library’s general operating budget. The foundation played that role for another project a decade ago, funding the library’s wireless Internet access until its necessity was beyond doubt.

Today, every Internet-connected computer at the library is in almost constant use. That trend almost certainly will continue and accelerate. How can our libraries prepare now to meet us in that future? For starters, let’s erase what’s come to be known as the digital divide.

Our library should provide every Eugene resident who wants it with an email address and enough basic training to retrieve email and browse the Internet. Libraries have always connected people. Part of November’s levy will be used to buy more computers, as well as laptops and computer tablets for patrons to use.

The Eugene Public Library must continue being a unique resource that no one in Eugene can imagine doing without — whether it’s for ourselves, our neighbors, or the city as a whole. What will indispensability look like in 2020? That’s what Eugene voters have given the library’s leaders five years to figure out.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.