More Iowans are using the state’s public libraries, and nearly 63 percent of Iowans have a library card. Data released this (Tuesday) morning along with a national report shows that over the past decade there’s been a 10 percent increase in the number of books Iowans annually check out of a public library.
State Librarian Mary Wegner says the new national “Long Overdue” report finds nearly three-quarters of Americans believe libraries spend public funds well. “Large majorities of Americans see public libraries as critical institutions in their communities,” Wegner says. “The public library continues to play an essential role in communities both large and small in Iowa and nationally.”
There are five-hundred-43 public libraries in Iowa. In the past five years, two-hundred of those libraries have either undergone major renovations or have moved collections into completely new buildings.
“Library visits and library check-outs both are up nationally and in Iowa,” Wegner says. “Public libraries in our state are well-loved and well-used. By any measure, use of public libraries is up over the past 10 years so don’t let anybody tell you that people aren’t using their public libraries anymore.” Iowa is 12th among the states in check-out rate and 29th when it comes to funding.
First Lady Christie Vilsack and her husband, the governor, did get state money for libraries doubled since 1999. “But most important to me and to the work that we’ve been doing the last eight years is that a public library is a commitment to community,” Mrs. Vilsack says. “I can take you to any one of those 475 to 500 libraries that I’ve visited and give you an example of community.”
Mrs. Vilsack, who confesses that she used to get thrown out of the Mount Pleasant Library as a teenager for giggling, says Iowa libraries are no longer quiet places, but places where kids, teenagers and senior citizens can go to socialize with their neighbors. “We need that sense of community. People need to be connected,” she says. “With the demise of many small-town schools, a public library serves as the soul of that community.”
The number of public library card holders in Iowa is up 15 percent in the past 10 years. Mrs. Vilsack calls libraries “solution centers.” The first lady says Iowa’s future is directly connected to supporting public libraries emotionally and financially. State officials set aside just over two-and-a-half million dollars that’ll be handed out as grants to public libraries this coming year.
And the private foundation set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates is providing three-quarters-of-a-million dollars to Iowa libraries this year which will be used to give high-speed access to computers in Iowa libraries.