(The following is the cover story from the May/June 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, written by Yvonne Dooley, reference librarian in the Science, Technology and Business Division and president of the D.C. Library Association. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
More popular than ever, public libraries are changing to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Despite dire predictions of their demise, America’s public libraries—about 17,000 nationwide—are thriving. Once thought of as a repository and lending place for books, public libraries are now centers for learning, innovation and collaboration. The digital age—with its rapidly changing technology—has required public libraries to evolve or risk becoming obsolete.
More Popular Than Ever
Americans love their libraries. In 2007–2008, during the nation’s economic downturn, public libraries saw an all-time high in usage throughout the country. The Institute of Museum and Library Services reported 1.5 billion in-person library visits in 2008. Patrons came to libraries in droves to use computers, look for jobs and attend classes, in addition to checking out materials. As they did during the Great Depression, people turned to their local public libraries during their greatest time of need. Today, those usage levels have remained unchanged.
A 2013 Pew Research Report on “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities” found that 90 percent of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63 percent saying it would have a “major” impact.
A 2012 “Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study” found that libraries are helping to bridge the digital divide: The study reported that 62 percent of libraries are the only source of free Internet access in their communities; 76 percent offer access to e-books and 39 percent of libraries provide e-readers for check-out by patrons.
Yet, as demand surges, library funding continues to dwindle. The “Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study” also reported that 23 states cut funding in 2012 for public libraries and more than 40 percent of states decreased library support three years in a row.
What’s New at the Public Library?
Today’s public libraries offer something for everyone—at all ages and levels of ability. The District of Columbia Public Library system, for example, is a bustling network of 26 library locations that offer services well beyond those initially conceived by Congress when it established a free public library for the District on June 3, 1896. Not only can District residents check out the latest bestseller or issue of People magazine but they also have free access to the Internet for research or job-hunting, or they can use one of the hands-on “makerspaces” (complete with a 3D printer) available at the central Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library branch. Opened in 1972, the historic MLK Library is scheduled for a major renovation to provide state-of-the-art library services. Several other D.C. public libraries have been renovated in recent years with designs that reflect changes in how the community uses the modern public library.
This is not unique to the D.C. area—the evolution is happening in 9,000+ public library systems all over the United States. In October 2014, the Aspen Institute released the report “Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries” in an effort to guide critical conversations regarding the future of public libraries. “It is a time of particular opportunity for public libraries with their unique stature as trusted community hubs and repositories of knowledge and information,” the report concluded. “Public libraries must align library services in support of community goals.”
The American Library Association agrees. In October 2015 it launched “Libraries Transform,” a new public awareness campaign to showcase the critical role that libraries play in the digital age.
“The Libraries Transform campaign communicates the message that libraries are neither ‘obsolete’ nor ‘nice to have’—libraries are essential,” said ALA President Sari Feldman. “It is clear that today’s libraries are less about what we have for people and more about what we do for, and with people to create individual opportunity and community progress.”
With support from the American Library Association’s “the American Dream Starts @ your library” initiative, institutions like the Waukegan (Illinois) Public Library are giving new Americans the skills and confidence to improve their lives. Waukegan’s programming includes English Conversation workshops for those for whom English is a second language. Adult ESOL programs are a mainstay of public library programming throughout the nation.
When facing budget shortfalls, U.S. mayors report that library budgets are among the first items cut. Donna Howell, the director of Mountain Regional Library System in Georgia sums up the issue: “Our funding has been cut so low that we’re really at the end of our financial tether … but the fact that we’re still relevant enough to our community for them to keep coming back in such large numbers gives me hope for our future.”
“Los Angeles is a gateway city and serving our immigrant communities is an extremely high priority for us,” said John Szabo, city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. “In 2012, we launched a partnership with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—the agency that oversees naturalization—to provide resources that assist new Americans in taking their first steps on the path to citizenship. Our program has become a national model and is evolving into an even more robust immigrant integration effort. This work is beautifully aligned with the values of libraries and librarianship and is strategically important to our present and our future.”
Today’s public libraries are bright, airy, inviting meeting spaces, with comfortable furniture in open floorplans. In addition to makerspaces, some even include coffee shops, toylending collections, passport acceptance centers—the list goes on and on.
Makerspaces allow the creative community to take advantage of new tools to produce products and take them directly to the marketplace on the web. Makerspaces also foster interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). More than 30 libraries in the state of Idaho have implemented STEM programming that encourages the use of new technology and tools. Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Libraries offer “creating with Legos” programs for elementary school children that support the STEM curriculum.
For reluctant young readers, many public libraries offer a “Read to a Dog” program. For reluctant users of technology, the public library is the place to go to learn how to download e-books to mobile devices.But as wonderful as all these new public library programs are, they mean nothing if people do not take advantage of them. Like a best-selling novel that gets shelved in the nonfiction section, if no one finds and uses it, it might as well not be there.