Ron McCabe: Libraries Play a Key Role in Education

Posted by Lisa Strand on Thursday, June 30, 2011 in WLA News
This column, by WLA President-elect Ron McCabe, appeared in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune on June 24.

In our democracy, everyone is allowed and encouraged to participate in the political, social and economic life of their community, state and nation. Public education is the most powerful means we have to encourage and enable this participation. Libraries play a vital role in this effort to create a more perfect union.

Education often begins in the classroom, but it doesn't end there. Libraries provide opportunities for lifelong learning that extend beyond the classroom and beyond graduation. Libraries allow us to share costly educational resources that we might not be able to purchase on our own. Today, networks of library cooperation expand this local sharing by providing access to library collections throughout the state and nation.

As president-elect of the Wisconsin Library Association, I am learning more everyday about the amazing contributions of libraries of all types to the education of the citizens of our state. Here are a few examples that relate to public libraries. I was surprised to learn that more people visit Wisconsin's public libraries every week than the Packers home game attendance in an entire season. There were 35.5 million public library visits in 2009. These visitors borrowed 65.6 million books and other materials that year.

Wisconsin is the No. 1 state in public library resource sharing. If all of the library materials borrowed from other libraries were purchased by home libraries, the Department of Public Instruction calculates the cost of these materials at more than $100 million per year. NorthStar Economics estimated the direct economic impact and the impact of Wisconsin public library services to be $753 million in 2008. In the same study, NorthStar estimated that the annual return per dollar of public tax support for Wisconsin's public libraries was $4.06.

The United States built the best system of public education in the world and the world's greatest economy. Since 1970, however, our country has declined in its educational performance compared to the rest of the developed world. In a recent international study, American 15-year-olds were ranked 15 of 34 nations in reading. Our students scored 17th in science and 25th in math. We cannot win the economic competition with other nations or even neighboring states if Wisconsin fails to provide a good education for its citizens. Supporting our school, technical college, university and community libraries contributes to the educational and economic success of our state and nation.
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