There's nothing quite so irksome as meeting people for the first time, telling them you are a librarian, then listening to them declare, "A librarian? But nobody needs libraries or librarians anymore. We have Google and Amazon and the Internet." Most likely, the person who expresses this view is of a certain income bracket, someone who can afford a high-speed Internet connection at home and who can afford to buy or rent books, DVDs, CDs, and other media instead of borrowing them. However, for those who can't afford these luxuries (and let's face it, in this economic climate, that's a lot of people!), public libraries continue to provide a vital, essential service. Recent statistics show that about 77 million people aged 14 and over used a public library to access the Internet or the library's wireless network in 2009. That's about one-third of the current U.S. population. And about 44 percent of people living below the federal poverty level used a public library last year to access the Internet and computer programs.
In these tough economic times, public libraries offer important cost-saving services beyond Internet and computer access. In addition to books, you can borrow CDs and DVDs at the library. Public libraries offer access to lots of great free research databases. Non-law public libraries usually don't offer access to Lexis and Westlaw, but they do offer free access to databases that are useful for legal research, including databases containing the full text of some of the most-cited law reviews like Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, or Stanford Law Review. Also, SF Public Library cardholders can access LexisNexis Congressional, a very handy database for federal legislative history research (here's the full list of databases offered to SFPL cardholders). And our local public law libraries offer free on-site access to legal research databases, including Lexis and Westlaw at some locations (here's the SF Law Library's list of databases).
Public libraries are definitely not moribund institutions. If you haven't used a public library in awhile, it's worth it to explore what's available. You can use this handy Find a Library tool to locate the closest public library. For county law libraries, use this guide to find the one closest to you.