Public Library Blues

Poor public libraries, scrambling to establish relevancy in the information age. Talk about irony: what could be more information-oriented than a library? But, alas, information has become a commodity, marketed, sold, and bought as any product on the open market. Or given away. What’s a library to do?

Katrina vanden Heuvel in a 2018 opinion piece for the Washington Post (Want to defend democracy? Start with your public library), detailed a few, if not commonly known, at least commonly discussed points of concern about public libraries. “Local libraries are struggling to stay open, and funding for local libraries is on the chopping block.” And, “Earlier this year, the administration moved to cut funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In late August (2018), the Senate, rebuffing the administration, approved a funding increase for the institute.”

However, she says, people do use their local library. “Pew Research Center recently found that 87 percent of millennials say the library ‘helps them find information that is trustworthy and reliable.’ Seventy-four percent of baby boomers say the same.” Ms. vanden Heuvel writes that teenagers study, seniors visit to socialize, people go to the library to get online, and in some cases, can obtain career training and job preparation.

So where’s the disconnect? If people do indeed make use of their local public library, why are many libraries struggling to stay afloat? The answer in a word: Relevancy. It can be a hard sell to justify tax dollars to fund an institution whose prime focus historically has been locating information and lending books. Try as they might, public libraries have not had an easy time putting on a convincing presentation, one that shows they now perform other needed functions.

Looking through a rearview mirror

Benjamin Franklin created a private subscription book lending service in 1731 called the Library Company. Franklin also helped create a library in Massachusetts which began lending books for free in 1790. In the United States, the idea of an institution whose purpose is to lend books and provide them to the public for free had several beginnings, all in the 1700s. Like the small Darby Free Library in Pennsylvania – it was created in 1743 as a public lender, and today still provides this function.

Today there are about 9,000 public library systems and 17,000 library outlets in the U.S.. Facilities serve anywhere from 3 million users (Los Angeles County), to under 10 (Frenchboro Public Library off the coast of Maine). And of the 9,000 library systems, about 2,000 of them have fewer than 1,000 users, and 2,500 libraries have over 10,000 users.

These data are from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (2016), a U.S. government database, and it’s interesting to note some of the categories of information that are recorded. For example, the database tracks the kinds of lending taking place – the number of videos, e-books, paper books, and so on – but beyond street address and population numbers, information regarding the communities these libraries serve is scarce.

More information regarding the local community culture could be useful to library administrators in helping them to better serve community needs. As it stands, what they have access to shows community needs in relation to what libraries currently understand their service options to be – e.g. media loans, children’s programming, internet access, meeting and event space – but not on local character that might indicate what a community may want.

The American Library Association (ALA) offers extensive library usage analysis plus a library full of resources that addresses cultural shifts and social needs for all the different kinds of libraries, academic, school, and public. This includes addressing the issue of library relevance. For example, this snippet from ALA’s The State of America’s Libraries, 2015: “The number of states reporting library branch closures is down, from 10 states reporting knowledge of closures to only five this year.” A relatively good sign, I suppose.

Data relationships

There is no question that, historically, libraries were a necessity when it came to disseminating information. And that for almost 200 years in this country, communities embraced the calling to make knowledge widely available. But today, universal availability is exactly what the Internet provides. It is no secret that the proliferation of networked computers and small portable electronic devices has forced libraries to find new ways of being relevant. And one response was that libraries began to look for new ways to satisfy local needs.

But while systems track what library offerings people use, there is little focus on tracking what their patrons’ issues – needs and wants are. Given the library’s intimate position in local communities, it certainly seems more of this could be done. This isn’t to fault the ALA or local libraries – they sometimes do seek patron’s opinions – but just to say, community needs and desires are more than just the sum of their printed and e-book loans.

A new direction

Public libraries can offer direct and indirect support: shelter from a local disasters, school children having a place to study until parents return from work, books and media on loan, social activity programs, cultural presentations. Awareness of community vulnerabilities and resource allocation could become increasingly important should critical social and economic changes occur and public libraries are called to act.

It’s the practical assistance in a constantly changing world that can take on a more serious note, representing more difficult challenges. The question then is: How can the local public library best address real needs of individuals in the community? As the future roles out, libraries will continue to adapt, learning different ways of relating to new and unforeseen individual and community needs.

It may be that new library functions, more directly connected to local resources, will produce the most relevant outcomes. This is where the reference librarian comes in.

Here’s what the American Library Association has to say about reference librarians: “Reference librarians recommend, interpret, evaluate, and/or use information resources to help patrons with specific information needs. Requests for assistance often occur in person at the library, reference is increasingly conducted by phone, chat and email. In small libraries all librarians may be called upon to perform reference duties; in large and/or academic libraries reference services may be highly specialized. A Career in Reference Services . . . Is for Everyone!”

That sounds pretty straightforward and functionally relevant, depending on what “help patrons with specific information needs” actually means.

Here’s a quote from Rebekkah Smith Aldrich of the Mid-Hudson New York Library System in a 2016 Publisher’s Weekly article. “Waiting for people to come and ask us a question has been and continues to be a recipe for irrelevance. Today, we need targeted efforts that speak to where people’s passions and aspirations lie. We need to target the unique things we can corner the market on locally: reader advisory, homework help, digital fluency, local history, hackerspaces, and working outside of our buildings with collaborators to make our communities more sustainable and resilient.”

This certainly sounds relevant in terms of addressing practical needs. As to what reference librarians actually reference – in many libraries, reference books like encyclopedias, dictionaries, or The Complete Guide to Birds of The West, are being thrown in the recycle bin.

In a very real sense, the position of reference librarian is a representative symbol for what is happening to public libraries in general, and that includes what the future may hold in terms of services needed and offered.

The ways in which the functions of reference librarians could change in order to be more useful in a new world, actually points the way for the library to gain increased relevancy. Reference – or referring people to needed resources – should become a central focus of the new public library.

Relevancy may simply be a matter of redefining the word: reference.

Of, by, and for the community

The position of the reference librarian should become the central go-to function for the local community, a kind of “information booth” representing not just factual information but also networking and resource availability within the community. The process of managing these information relationships should be part of an ongoing library-community relationship.

Librarians should now refer to patrons in a more direct and personal way, relating more to personal needs in a way that connects them to local resources including local entrepreneurs and community activists.

This relationship between resource reference and the local community becomes a two-way pathway when everyone is not just connected, but engaged: nonprofits are speaking with the library staff, and the library staff is reaching out to nonprofits: relationships are being formed, ideas exchanged, and plans made that further engage the community.

Regardless of whether the library has a reference librarian position or not, someone can act as a liaison between the various nonprofit resources and the community as well as people coming into the library. These are conversations that can take place both in overseeing the resources and in determining what a patron is looking for. These are all opportunities for everyone to get to know each other, and to perhaps, not just connect, but reconnect information in different, new and unexpected ways.

All these interactions can be significant because they can lead to residents feeling a greater connection with, not only the library, but with local people, those representing nonprofit resources. The potential exists for everyone to become better acquainted, regardless of whether the patron finds what they are looking for at that moment or not. Practically speaking, it’s really a case of the needs that communities have for resources being matched up with the needs that public libraries have for relevance. It’s a dual win.

Broadly speaking, communities need active and engaging enablers – public libraries and nonprofit organizations – to become engaged with a changing world environment. And libraries need to find relevant ways to utilize the skill sets they were born with: information management within the context of community life.

The beauty of using both the local public library and nonprofit organizations that serve community is that these resources – the information overseer, and the inspired service and activity providers – are already embedded in the community. Networking these two is just making better use of what already exists.

Put yet another way: libraries are valued for their skills in information gathering and dissemination, organizations are valued for the content they provide, and both are valued for the active concern they have for local community. Pairing these two is both useful and practical: one for having the potential to make culture and services more accessible, and the other for enabling individuals to better satisfy their needs.

Promoting more effective networking between libraries and local resources can lead to an enhanced appreciation of what makes a community healthy, and how communities can function in ways that satisfy more people.

What’s a person to do?

You’re not a librarian, nor are you active in a local nonprofit organization. But you care about the community you live in, and you have concerns about future social, economic, and environmental changes and how they may affect your life and the lives of those around you. Of course there are many paths you can take in addressing concerns like these, but besides paying your taxes, obeying traffic laws, and recycling – not to disparage any of these – the issue of taking action on a local level can leave a person dumbfounded as to significant steps one can take.

First, keep in mind that the local public library, assuming you do have access to one, is already paid for and is mandated to serve the local community as an information and cultural resource. Second, think about how libraries should function best as the future unfolds. Then find ways to help your community access and improve the local resources they already have.

As environments change, the library needs to go where community residents are headed.

We could say that preparing for the future means managing the process of engaging change as much as managing the effects of change. This means looking at process as well as program: A directory of local resources enables a process of interaction between the library, nonprofits, and residence, which in tern can influence how resources are managed – programs.

It is the business of public libraries to provide information services to their communities, and it is in community’s best interest to support services that address community needs. Public libraries are the main local information resource. They can and should commit to serving communities in ways that directly address ongoing social, economic, and cultural change.

Support that effort where you can.

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