It wasn't too many years ago when people were predicting the end of public libraries. The Internet, which provides instant information to people, was supposed to make these traditional repositories of books obsolete.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. Minnesota's 372 public libraries are facing major challenges because usage is increasing while funding from cities and counties, which are facing their own budget crises, has remained stagnant at best.

Their situation has piqued the interest of state agencies. The Office of the Legislative Auditor issued a report last spring and the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division recently took testimony on recommendations included in the report.

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, chairwoman of the division, called the report a "starting point of change for the future," according to an article in Session Daily from the nonpartisan Public Information Services. The report concludes that the state's "complex, multilayered approach" to providing delivery of public library services should be streamlined, and it noted the wide variations in funding support because of the reliance on local coffers and how that affects local services.

Because people use library computers for help with job searches and training, discussions on library funding should also move into other legislative committees, particularly those focused on workforce development, Murphy noted in the Session Daily article.

That request proves the definition of libraries has expanded. The public library is useful for many purposes never considered for that time-honored institution when it first came to Minnesota.

Zumbrota and Faribault established the state's first public libraries in 1879. During the ensuing 130 years, libraries have evolved from mere buildings full of books into multi-use facilities that serve many roles, both within and beyond the communities where they are located. The legislative report notes that they give all residents, regardless of income, free access to information, including printed materials, videos, recordings, electronic databases and the Internet. They also provide a wide variety of programs and resources to promote literacy or lifelong learning, such as computer classes, job training and children's story time. Finally, public libraries serve as sites for community meetings as well as informal gathering spots for residents.

That makes the librarian's job complex. A love of books may help, but librarians must also know digital technology, computer software and Internet trends. They must be able to help the technically proficient as well as guide the computer novices in their quest to find the information they need.

Not all libraries are public. School libraries are also facing challenges as education budgets get cut. A lobbyist during the legislative hearing pointed out that school libraries are different than public ones as school librarians are "integration specialists" that teach information literacy to students.

Private enterprise also has libraries serving many different uses. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) recently highlighted some of those in its Minnesota Economic Trends magazine. For example, Target Corp. has three libraries. The librarians hired by Target research competitors, trends and economic issues for staff. They also manage content for employees to access information online.

Closer to home, Mayo Clinic has 18 libraries, although they are spread across the Mayo geographic footprint in Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Some are for medical students and faculty, who use them for information to write articles, prepare for tests and develop presentations. Other Mayo facilities focus solely on serving Mayo patients.

Rather than dying off, libraries are springing to life in new forms and in new locations. Even private enterprise is seeing the value of directing funds to create their own libraries.

Technology has created the Information Age, as predicted. However, the consequences haven't exactly turned out as predicted.

Individuals may have instant access to information that was previously difficult or impossible to find, but there is still a need for a place to help manage that information and provide the access that is not necessarily available to everyone.

The self-service model doesn't work for everyone, particularly now that we seem to be in an age of information overload. A live person in a real library can help guide us through this maze of information and technology.

And for those of you who still like the simple act of reading for pleasure, public libraries continue to be a great repository of books, which can be searched and checked out, not only in person as tradition would have it, but also online.