The National Library Week, which proceeds in the virtual environment this year and has moved into its end, allows taking a closer look at how libraries as cultural institutions contribute to fostering progressive society and reducing digital and social divide. For more than a decade, libraries have been teaching citizens to use the internet and digital technologies and thus prepared people for outlasting the complicated circumstances of the quarantine: shopping online, using electronic services, communicating virtually, etc. Recent initiatives, which gained wide public attention, also show their significant contribution: during the quarantine, libraries voluntarily started to print protective face screens for medical professionals by using 3D printers (over 6500 such screens have been already printed) and offered to put at the provisional disposal of local authorities newly obtained computers for supplying the needs of schoolchildren involved in the process of remote learning.
Social impact of libraries is obvious from recent studies. In 2019, a representative study of Lithuanian public libraries commissioned by the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania was undertaken by Kantar, a market and media research company, which showed the added value generated by these institutions. A majority of the respondents see the library as a gratifying pastime venue with qualified staff providing professional help. Most of the visitors (85 percent) visit libraries at least once a month and mostly 1 or 2 times.
Services provided by Lithuanian libraries are ranked as excellent by visitors: the average rating reaches 9.5 points out of 10. Both rural and urban libraries are rated equally well. The highest rating points are given for general quality of services and consultations provided by librarians; events and training projects organized by libraries are also much appreciated. The greatest impact of the use of libraries is observed in the general improvement of visitor’s skills and personal development; somewhat lesser impact is on the ability to solve practical problems and evaluate social changes.
15 percent of the respondents use the internet only at libraries; the remaining 85 percent, though having possibilities to use it elsewhere, access it at libraries because of additional services such as the possibility to use a printer or copying or scanning device (relevant for 54 percent of visitors), consultations and assistance provided by library staff (relevant for 1 out of 2 elderly visitors, especially in rural areas), etc. By and large, there has been the increase of the importance of librarians and change of their role: a librarian became a consultant and important agent in motivating to prefer using the internet at libraries. Of major importance is the fact that library visitors do not experience social divide and are able to apply their knowledge in practice and address librarians when wishing to get answers to their questions.
The possibility to use the internet at libraries is basically related to the visitors’ age and place of residence: the younger the visitor, the more diverse choice for accessing the internet for them is available. Free-of-charge access to the internet is especially important for one out of two members of large families, persons with low income and rural residents. Therefore libraries are anxiously looking forward to the end of the quarantine so that they can resume their user services and satisfy the needs of the most socially sensitive visitor categories to use the internet free-of-charge.
The survey respondents stated that using the internet at libraries positively influenced their social life (improved communication with their relatives) and helped acquire knowledge and skills which could be applied in the employment and learning activities. 8 percent of the respondents indicated that the possibility to use the internet helped them find a job. It means that libraries helped at least 373 individuals enter labour market and stay there. A majority of visitors use the internet for communication and leisure pursuits. A significant number of the visitors need the internet for learning and education or for e-government services.
The representative study was being carried out from 28 May until 3 October of 2019 and involved 4668 library visitors of fifteen year of age and older. At present, there are 1240 public libraries in Lithuania, of which almost 1000 are in rural areas. On average, there is one library per 2254 residents; the total number of visits per year is about 9.3 million.