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America’s Public Libraries

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(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.)

Opened in 2012, the Francis A. Gregory branch of the D.C. Public Library was designed by the  architecture team of Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates.  Maxine Schnitzer, courtesy of D.C.  Public Libraries.
Opened in 2012, the Francis A. Gregory branch of the D.C. Public Library was designed by the
architecture team of Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates. Maxine Schnitzer, courtesy of D.C. Public Libraries.

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.

Jaime Mears, a National Digital  Stewardship Resident  at Martin Luther King  Jr. Memorial Library  in Washington, D.C.,  instructs Alex Santos  on how to scan and  digitize family photos  in the Memory Lab. Photo by Shawn Miller
Jaime Mears, a National Digital Stewardship Resident at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., instructs Alex Santos
on how to scan and digitize family photos in the Memory Lab. Photo by Shawn Miller.

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.

 Public libraries  like the Watha T. Daniel/ Shaw Library, pictured  above, offer patrons  access to computer and  Internet.  Paúl Rivera,  courtesy of D.C. Public  Libraries
Public libraries like the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library offer patrons access to computer and Internet. Paúl Rivera, courtesy of D.C. Public Libraries

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.

Read to a Dog” programs at public  libraries motivate reluctant young readers. Courtesy  of Montgomery (Maryland) County Public Libraries.
Read to a Dog” programs at public
libraries motivate reluctant young readers. Courtesy of Montgomery (Maryland) County Public Libraries.

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.”

Library programs using  Legos support the STEM curriculum.  Courtesy of Montgomery County  (Maryland) Public  Libraries.
Library programs using Legos support the STEM curriculum. Courtesy of Montgomery County
(Maryland) Public Libraries.

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.

Comments (11)

  1. I love our public libraries. Love the fact that we can also check out DVDs and CDs. My daughter also used the library to job search. It’s great!

  2. I have long utilized libraries. Every since I was in Jr. High School when I started working in the school library, they have been my home away from home. When I enter a large library in any city, I immediately look for the the pathway to the books. Whereas I appreciate the changes: computers for homeless and jobless to gain access to the internet, I still relish the aroma of lots and lots of books. Its good to read that they may survive in the digital age.

  3. Libraries are the sole public entity where everyone is welcome and happy to be there! They are crucial to our democracy as repositories of education and promote civic engagement.

  4. We have a brand new library in Bloomington, CA. though the efforts of county supervisor Mrs. Josie Gonzales. It includes a housing for low income and other folks too. ir\t is a gerat new facility aand replaces an old building that really needed replacing. Thank You, Josie.
    And Fontana has a nearly new library that is up to date and very extensive to do research in for adults or kids.
    Carol Ray
    Fontana, CA.

  5. My neighborhood library is my getaway. I am a volunteer and advocate of the library. I am thrilled the library is a gathering place for all ages. Our public schools are within walking distance. The middle school and high school students meet there after school to study, research, and of course, socialize. The children’s department is fun, inviting, and stimulating. Evenings are filled with adult presentations, demonstrations, various clubs, genealogy, movies…Thank you to everyone who supports the library. And, congratulations for surviving the ditgial age. Well done.

  6. I loved libraries so much I became a librarian! Working in a library was like working in a candy store.

  7. I’m grateful for Richland Library serving our area. I am now blind. As I lost my vision, the library has accelerated technology tutoring for Voice Over on my iPhone iPad. This is the changing development of literacy. Librarians happily greet us and come out from counter plus call me by name. I’m sooooo grateful for libraries.

  8. Excellent Article…very informative

  9. We have our VFW meetings at the Library in Pharr, Texas…the Director is a veteran and is gracious to allow us to meet there since we do not have our own post…
    It is not only a great place to meet, but also allows us to use the library for research on VFW related issues pertaining to veteran’s assistance programs, etc.

  10. A few years ago I wrote this essay in support of the library when it was facing deep budget cuts.

    A few days ago what I had hoped would be a stroll down memory lane turned into a sad event. More than 50 years ago I began visiting the Library. During high school I made almost daily trips to the Library. Now there is a sign on the main door relating the likely consequences of proposed budget figures. How sad. A brief visit refreshed my memory of the lovely wooden benches, the dynamic of quiet activity of many sorts, the variety of people, and the blend of antique and new.

    On the way out I was again confronted with the sign about budget problems and tried to think of a way to write about the importance of the library. A good metaphorical image presented itself – the old tree with great spreading branches. Allow me to say first why I feel compelled to write, then just why the library is important in ways not easily measured in terms of dollars and sense.

    When I was five years old my first experience in the Library was to be told that nice boys do not wear hats in the Library. These days I am a professor in a library and information science doctoral program, spending much of my time working on using computers for information seeking. It is often surprising to my colleagues that I am still a champion of public libraries, even when I point out their many problems. Having written several books, produced several films, and published numerous scholarly articles, I think I have credentials to speak about the Manchester Library. I am one of the branches on that tree.

    There are two things about a good public library that are not available on the internet: the value added help of librarians and staff to patrons, and the atmosphere created by the bricks and mortar – not simply the interior of the building but the knowledge that the building stands as a testament that the city honors knowledge. It is true that much material can be found on the internet or on television or in the flood of magazines now published. A trip to Barnes & Noble offers coffee and cheesecake along with browsing. Why keep the library open? Why provide services for such a small portion of the citizenry?

    Because it is not simply any individual visit, any individual book found, any number of books that goes out the door that are the measures of the value of the institution. Librarians provide better-trained service than bookstore employees. Even that is not the point. The point is that the library provides all the citizens with a hotbed of potential. It provides the city with deep potential. It provides each individual a great potential. My published work on photography is directly and deeply rooted in visits to the art room – not once or twice but over several years. My entry into Dartmouth College is largely due to the wide variety of interests and knowledge nurtured in the Library – the place where I could explore way beyond the textbooks of my good high school education at Central High School. My major in Greek and Latin Literature was spurred as much by finding books on Roman history and audio records of Latin poetry, as by the course work in high school. My graduate work in film production rests deeply in the same visits to the library, not only for photography and art, but also for the literature ranging from Dostoyevsky to Robert Frost that helped develop ways of looking at the world. My Ph.D. work at Berkeley was deeply influenced by the discussions with librarians in Manchester who earnestly engaged with me when I was a high school student – sometimes helping me find a particular book, but often simply chatting about ideas.

    I cannot believe that I am the only one for whom an experience or set of experiences at the Manchester Library was fundamentally important. Just as there are many branches on that great old tree, I suspect there are many branches that have sprung from the Library. Could the Manchester Library exist on a smaller budget? Surely. Would many people still find value in the Library. Of course. Would librarians still influence patrons of all ages and sorts? Yes.

    However, the librarians would know on a daily basis and patrons would likely know occasionally that the City of Manchester no longer values the nurturing of minds. In a time when fiscal realities loom, it is tempting to look to branches that can be pruned with no evident ill effects. Yet, we must remember that any library’s impact is not measured simply in the number of books that go out the door or the number of reference questions answered or the number of people who accessed the internet. It is measured in the future, in the profusion of branches and where they spread. The branches may spread into places never foreseen by the Library, tax payers, and patrons. The Library shows that the City of Manchester privileges itself, its citizens and institutions, by creating its own branch of what is likely humankind’s greatest invention – the written body of human knowledge.

    I would urge that the City not cut off branches from the great tree or stifle more from growing.

    Note: I was born in Manchester in 1947, went to Wilson School and Central High, lived and worked in Manchester summers during my years at Dartmouth and after graduation. While I now live outside New Hampshire, I continue to visit my parents in Manchester. My profound gratitude for the Library remains.

  11. The public library system is one of the most admirable institutions in the US.

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