The picture of 13-year-old Rodjonnay Thomas doing her homework at a computer at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, which accompanied a recent story about libraries and Internet access, brings two thoughts to mind.

The first is that students who are this dedicated - Thomas comes to the library almost every day to do her homework - are a reason to be optimistic about the future.

The second is that libraries are doing something right.

Internet access and computer skills are becoming a necessity. And it often falls to libraries and librarians to provide access and training for people who find themselves on the wrong side of what policymakers call the digital divide.

The irony is that the Web was supposed to replace libraries, right? Who needs all those stacks of books when you can access the wisdom of the world - or the latest gray-shaded adult novel - on your computer or smartphone?

Thankfully, the folks who predicted the demise of libraries - and of books, for that matter - were wrong. If anything, in the digital age, libraries may be more important than ever.

That's partly due to the way libraries have reinvented themselves, keeping up with technology and providing media specialists to guide people who are doing research online.

And it's partly due to the fact that the digital age isn't dawning with the same brightness everywhere.

While New Jersey ranks third in the nation for households with broadband access, at 72 percent, there are plenty of places - including rural and urban areas of southern New Jersey - where as few as 20 percent of homes have broadband Internet access. Even in homes with broadband accounts, it can be difficult for family members who have to share time on a computer.

That's where school libraries and public libraries come in. And the computers at libraries aren't only being used by students.

A 2010 study by the University of Washington found that Internet use at libraries surged during the recession. Nearly one-third of Americans older than 14 used library computers and Internet access. The percentage was even higher for people living below the federal poverty level. In addition to doing schoolwork and using social media, they were searching for jobs, filling out college applications and applying for government benefits.

This is something to keep in mind when libraries are struggling to survive. A Rutgers University study said one-fourth of New Jersey school districts reduced library funding in 2008-09. Since the 2007-08 school year, the number of school librarians in the state has dropped by 15 percent.

In the past two budget cycles, Cumberland County freeholders have considered closing the county library. Fortunately, that hasn't happened.

Libraries aren't just about books, and they never were. Today's users find the same thing in libraries that previous generations did - opportunity.


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