Libraries play a responsive role as budgets are cut, book challenges increase, ebooks present new challenges
CHICAGO — Libraries and library staff continue to respond to the needs of their communities, providing key resources as budgets are reduced, speaking out forcefully against book-banning attempts and advocating for free access to digital content in libraries, with a keen focus placed on ebook formats.
Led by the American Library Association (ALA), libraries offer resources often unavailable elsewhere during an economic “recovery” that finds about 12 million Americans unemployed and millions more underemployed. And the library community continues to rally support for school libraries, which seem destined to bear the brunt of federal budget sequestration.
These and other library trends of the past year are detailed in the ALA’s 2013 State of America’s Libraries Report, released today during National Library Week, April 14 – 20.
The more than 16,000 public libraries nationwide “offer a lifeline to people trying to adapt to challenging economic circumstances by providing technology training and online resources for employment, access to government resources, continuing education, retooling for new careers, and starting a small business,” according to ALA President Maureen Sullivan. Three-fourths of public libraries offer software and other resources to help patrons create résumés and employment materials, and library staff helps patrons complete online job applications.
Meanwhile, there were events held nationwide that highlighted the benefits of free access to information and the perils of censorship by spotlighting the actual or attempted banning of books. Events like Banned Books Week, sponsored by the ALA and other organizations to stress the importance of maintaining First Amendment rights, marked its 30th anniversary Sept. 30–Oct. 6, 2012.
A perennial highlight of Banned Books Week is the Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books, compiled annually by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). OIF collects reports on book challenges from librarians, teachers, concerned individuals and press reports. A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that a book or other material be restricted or removed because of its content or appropriateness. In 2012, OIF received 464 reports on attempts to remove or restrict materials from school curricula and library bookshelves. This is an increase from 2011 totals, which stood at 326 attempts.
The most challenged books of 2012 are: “Captain Underpants” (series), by Dav Pilkey; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie; “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher; “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E. L. James; “And Tango Makes Three,” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson; “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini; “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green; “Scary Stories” (series), by Alvin Schwartz; “The Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls: and “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison.
School libraries are bracing for further budget cuts as federal funding to the states shrinks and the states begin to reduce aid to education. Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association, warned that this could lead to the closing of school libraries, among other things.
And Carl Harvey II, past-president of the American Association of School Librarians (2011 – 2012), said eliminating school librarian positions betrays “an ignorance of the key role school librarians play in a child’s education… . The value of school librarians has been measured in countless studies demonstrating that strong school library programs help students learn more and score higher on standardized achievement tests.”
As the ongoing economic slump leads many Americans to re-examine their financial circumstances, libraries are responding in many ways. Public and community college libraries, for example, provide patrons with reliable financial information and investor education resources and programs, many of which target teens and young adults.
Digital content and libraries, and most urgently the issue of ebooks, also continues to be a focus of the library community. Libraries and publishers of ebooks have spent much of the past year seeking some middle ground that will allow greater library access to ebooks and still compensate publishers appropriately.
Just recently Penguin Group USA removed a six-month embargo on new releases licensed to libraries and instead will offer new ebook titles immediately after they are released in the consumer market. Although other terms are expected to continue, including a one-year expiration date on ebooks licensed to libraries, this new development comes at a time when the ALA continues to reach out to the nation’s top publishers to explore ebook lending models in U.S. libraries.
But libraries have experienced changes that reach well beyond economics and the digital revolution to embrace community relationships, user expectations, library services, physical space, library leadership and the library workforce.
“You are on the front lines of a battle that that will shape the future of our country,” Caroline Kennedy told librarians at the ALA’s 2013 Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. “Whether it is [for] providing a social environment for seniors, a safe space for kids after school, or a maker-space to unleash the talent in the community, libraries are becoming more important than ever.”
Other key trends detailed in the 2013 State of America’s Libraries Report:
- Changes in technology and social networking continue at a dizzying pace, and libraries maintain their role as technology leaders — not in being first adopters, but in being early users of effective technologies.
- Academic librarians are helping students learn how to analyze information and apply it to new contexts, reflect on what they know, identify what they still need to learn and sort through contradictory arguments.
- Despite the anemic economy, library construction continued apace in 2012, concrete evidence that libraries still bring solid economic dividends to the communities they serve. The trend toward renovation, as opposed to new construction, was particularly striking.