Libraries are a valuable resource for economic recovery

Nine months ago, thanks to a $5.1 million federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant, the New Jersey State Library implemented a series of steps to enable libraries throughout New Jersey to better assist our unemployed and underemployed residents and their families.

As unemployment in our state skyrocketed, going from 4.5 percent in 2007 to 9.6 percent in 2010, and the jobless faced the reality of cutting back on unessential commodities, such as Internet service, our libraries saw an unprecedented influx of customers needing not only the basic services libraries had been providing for years, but more specialized services as well, especially computer technology.

With little reduction in the unemployment rate today, that need remains critical, especially when you consider that in 70 percent of our communities, the only free Internet access for these residents on a tight budget is their local library.

Longtime employees who were laid off suddenly found the job-searching landscape had changed. Job listings in newspapers were practically nonexistent; paper resumes were a thing of the past; applying for unemployment was online and knowing how to use a computer was essential.

Our librarians found that many of the thousands who lost their jobs had no computer skills. They were frustrated, upset, embarrassed and scared, but found their local library was a safety zone with friendly, reassuring people who would help them cross the bridge to computer literacy.

One of the first things the State Library implemented with BTOP funding was making the LearningExpress Job & Career Accelerator available online at all New Jersey libraries.

This tool offers access to millions of active job and internship postings and provides a wide array of valuable information such as predicted job growth by field, reviews of today’s hottest careers, model resumes based on job titles and experience levels, interactive computer training courses, and e-books for further skill building and study.

Since making it available last October, the 4,500 people who registered at the site have created 1,350 resumes and conducted almost 7,000 job searches.

To better serve job seekers even further, this past spring we added public access computers at 124 libraries.

We are upgrading broadband connectivity at 79 libraries and providing job search assistance, employment skills, workforce development programs and other online resources at all 365 libraries across the state.

Another online resource is Gale’s Career Transitions, a complete, self-paced application that walks job seekers through the entire process from assessing strengths and interests, to exploring new opportunities, to ultimately improving the chances of landing a job.

As these tough economic times linger, we are all making sacrifices, and it is no different for the State Library and our local libraries.

At a time when library usage is at an alltime high, libraries are struggling to maintain the services their communities demand with reduced funding. With over 170,000 customers every day, last year library computers were used over 11 million times and residents borrowed 64 million items.

It might surprise many that libraries have become a hub for people looking for jobs, to upgrade their computer skills, to advance their education, or keep up to date with the latest developments in their fields, but the idea of the library being just books, magazines and newspapers is an anachronism.

Our libraries now offer so much more, while still providing a quiet, distraction-free place for studying, learning and exploring.

Norma Blake New Jersey State Librarian Moorestown