Libraries continue role as transformative institutions
After an economic recession that has left about 12 million Americans unemployed and millions more underemployed, libraries continue to play a transformative role in their communities.
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,” Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, said in an open letter published July 10, 2012. Three-fourths of public libraries offer software and other resources to help patrons create résumés and find employment materials, and library staff help patrons complete online job applications, Sullivan wrote, responding to a June 8 post about the value of a library and information science master’s degree on the Forbes website.
“More than ever, libraries are community hubs, and it is the librarian who works to maintain a safe harbor for teens, a point of contact for the elderly, and a place to nurture lifelong learning for all.”
|HOW PEOPLE USE LIBRARIES. 53% of Americans told Pew Internet and American Life Project that they had visited a library or bookmobile in person in the past 12 months. This is what they said they did at the library.||Percentage|
|Browsed the shelves for books or media||73%|
|Borrowed print books||73%|
|Researched topics that interest them||54%|
|Got help from a librarian||50%|
|Sat, read, and studied,or watched or listened to media||49%|
|Used a research database||46%|
|Attended or brought a youngster to a class, program, or event designed for children or teens||41%|
|Borrowed a DVD or videotape of a movie or TV show||40%|
|Read or checked out printed magazines or newspapers||30%|
|Attended a meeting of a group to which they belong||23%|
|Attended a class, program, or lecture for adults||21%|
|Borrowed or downloaded an audiobook||17%|
|Borrowed a music CD||16%|
|Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project, "Library Services in the Digital Age" (January 2013).|
The economic and social challenges that libraries and their patrons face are aggravated by the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration that went into effect on March 1, 2013, after Congress and the White House were unable to reach an agreement on tax reform and deficit reduction.
The full effects of sequestration on libraries and their patrons will become known only as time passes, but the library community and the ALA continued to explore various opportunities to secure funding for libraries. The ALA Washington Office in particular met with members of Congress and reached out to congressional staff to keep them informed about the services libraries provide to help everyday Americans.
Outlook especially gloomy for school libraries
Sequestration promised to aggravate an already bleak situation for school libraries, where the number of school librarians has declined.
“Budget cuts have eliminated support for many school library programs and the librarians who work in them,” John Palfrey, president of the Digital Public Library of America Board of Directors, wrote January 22, 2013, in School Library Journal. “These types of cuts to school libraries are short-sighted.”
As federal spending to the states shrinks, the states—many already in a budget bind of their own—begin to cut aid to education, and that often means funding for school libraries.
ALA President Sullivan spelled out why this is a bad idea in her July 2012 open letter to Forbes:
“In schools across the country, librarians support teaching by providing students access to the tools and resources necessary to gain 21st-century learning and digital literacy skills to enable them to compete in a global economy,” she wrote. “Librarians are teaching students how to navigate the internet and how to conduct research. They foster a love of reading and prepare them for college, where specialized academic and research librarians then continue to support and guide their education.”
Digital content: A focus, and an area of contention
“Digital content and libraries, and most urgently the issue of ebooks, continues to be a focus [of the library community],”ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels wrote in the January/February 2013 issue of American Libraries magazine.
A Pew Internet and American Life study published at the end of 2012 indicated that the proportion of all Americans age 16 and older who read ebooks had increased from 16 percent to 23 percent, while the proportion of those who had read a printed book in the previous 12 months fell from 72 percent to 67 percent. The shifts coincide with an increase in the ownership of electronic book reading devices.
“The growth of electronic reading holds significant opportunities and threats for both public libraries and publishers,” David Vinjamuri wrote January 16, 2013, in Forbes. Public libraries may seem like a thorn in the side of embattled publishers, who are always on the lookout for the next “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Hunger Games” and would prefer that the current fight over ebook pricing quietly disappear, according to Vinjamuri.
But he got it right when he wrote: “There is another side to public libraries in America: They are dynamic, versatile community centers. . . . More than half of young adults and senior citizens living in poverty in the United States use public libraries to access the internet to ‘find work, apply to college, secure government benefits, and learn about critical medical treatments,’” among other things. “For all this, public libraries cost just $42 per citizen each year to maintain.”
Meanwhile, libraries and publishers of ebooks continued to seek some middle ground that would allow greater library access to ebooks and still compensate publishers appropriately. So far, the progress has been slow, as some publishers either still flatly refused to make ebooks available to libraries or made them prohibitively expensive.
ALA President Sullivan was among those who strongly criticized the lack of progress by the largest publishers that were not yet making ebooks available to libraries. “It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is ‘no good here,’” Sullivan wrote September 24, 2012, in American Libraries’ E-Content blog.
Transformation extends to the community
But the transformation of libraries of all types involves much more than just the digital revolution. It also extends to community relationships, user expectations, library services, physical space, library leadership, and the library workforce, according to ALA Executive Director Fiels. Brett W. Lear, director of the Martin County Library System in Stuart, Florida, said that as the library profession pursues transformation, ongoing budget pressures will force individual library systems and the profession as a whole to sharpen their responses.
“We’ll have to become better and better at planning and prioritizing,” said Lear, author of “Adult Programs in the Library"(ALA Editions, 2012). “We’ll have to be sure to deliver the services that bring about value and change in our communities. We’ll have to get better at ending services that have run their course. We’ll have to make partnership-building a top priority so that we can work with others to deliver services that we can’t deliver on our own.”
Another voice: “People are looking for trusted organizations in their communities to come together, to focus on our shared aspirations and not just our complaints,” Rich Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, said in a panel discussion, “The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities,” held at the 2013 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. “I think libraries are uniquely positioned in the country to do this.”
And another: “You are on the front lines of a battle that will shape the future of our country,” Caroline Kennedy said in a speech at the Carnegie Corporation of New York/New York Times I Love My Librarian Award ceremony in New York City in December 2011. “It is a battle that is fought out of view, and the heroes are people who didn’t seek a career of confrontation but who live lives of principle and meaning—understanding that the gift of knowledge is the greatest gift we can give to each other. Whether it is providing a social environment for seniors, a safe space for kids after school, or a makerspace to unleash the talent in the community, libraries are becoming more important than ever.”
Libraries are responding in many ways. As the ongoing economic slump leads many Americans to reexamine their financial circumstances, public and community college libraries, for example, continue to provide patrons with reliable financial information and investor-education resources and programs, many of which target teens and young adults. The effort is funded in part by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and receives management support and training from ALA’s Reference and User Services Association.
Some libraries are also seeking new partners within the library community; three founding members of a joint-use college–public library in Houston wrote “Joint Libraries: Models That Work” (ALA Editions, 2012), which scrutinizes the successes and failures of the joint-use model. And as librarians work to define their roles in a digital age, some even see an opportunity to fill the void created by the loss of traditional bookstores.
The ALA’s new Libraries Matter portal provides access to information on hundreds of studies that document the impact of public, academic, and school libraries on local economies, community development, and literacy and education. And the ALA’s rapidly growing Transforming Libraries site provides “one stop” access to information on resources, publications, webinars, and online discussion groups and communities—all created by librarians.
On the front lines of the battle against censorship
Meanwhile, the struggle against censorship continues unabated, and the ALA remains on the front lines. For example, Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the ALA and other organizations, celebrates the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted banning of books across the United States.
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).
The most-challenged items in 2012 ranged from the mischievous Captain Underpants series, which made the list in 2002, 2004, and 2005, to newcomers Thirteen Reasons Why and Looking for Alaska.
Here is the Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books in 2012:
- 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 Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
- “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini
- “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green
- Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
- “The Glass Castle,” by Jeannette Walls
- “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison
Elsewhere in this report on The State of America’s Libraries, you will learn that:
- As colleges and universities sharpen their focus on outcomes, including assessing student learning and graduation rates, academic librarians are looking for new ways to help students 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.
- Technology marches relentlessly on, and communication and marketing rely more and more on social media. Can libraries keep up? In a word: Yes.
- The fact that libraries still bring solid economic dividends to the communities they serve found ample expression in bricks and mortar in 2012, though there was somewhat of an increased emphasis on renovation as opposed to new construction.
- The library profession still faces the challenge of increasing its diversity, which has grown only slightly since the 2000 Census. The ALA has supported 700 Spectrum scholars, but ALA Executive Director Fiels and others agree that much work still lies ahead. Among those concurring is Brett W. Lear: “Somehow we need to figure out how to get young people interested in pursuing a career in libraries, so that we see more diversity in terms of graduates with an MLS,” he said. This will be particularly challenging because of the “monumental budget and staff reductions in recent years.”