Challenges to library materials and programs addressing issues of concern to those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual, and related (LGBTQIA+) communities continued unabated in 2019, with a rising number of coordinated, organized challenges to books, programs, speakers, and other library resources that address LGBTQIA+ issues and themes.
A notable feature of these challenges is an effort to frame any material with LGBTQIA+ themes or characters as inherently pornographic or unsuitable for minors, even when the materials are intended for children and families and they are age and developmentally appropriate. For example, a pastor in Upshur, West Virginia, challenged the children’s picture book Prince & Knight, claiming that the fractured fairy tale “is a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children, especially boys, into the LGBTQA lifestyle.” Similarly, an organized group in Loudoun County, Virginia, protested the addition of diverse children’s and young adult books addressing LGBTQIA+ themes and characters to classroom libraries, claiming that the books advance a “political agenda” endorsed by the LGBTQIA+ community.
Prince & Knight, written by Daniel Haack and illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Organized groups also continued to protest and disrupt Drag Queen Story Hour events held in libraries, claiming that the events advance political, social, and religious agendas that are inconsistent with the groups’ conservative Christian beliefs about gender and sexual identity. In 2019, OIF tracked more than 30 challenges to Drag Queen Story Hours and other Pride programs, and identified a new and distressing trend of disinviting authors who had been invited to speak or read from their books, solely on the grounds that the authors identify as LGTBQIA+ or because their books include LGBTQIA+ themes. Authors who have been disinvited include Lilah Sturges (Lumberjanes), Lesléa Newman (Gittel’s Journey), Julia Watts (Quiver), Meredith Russo (If I Was Your Girl), and Robin Stevenson (Kid Activists).
While challenges to LGBTQIA+ books made up the majority of entries on OIF’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books list for 2019, libraries continued to receive challenges to library resources based on objections to profanity, sex, and themes related to race, religion, and social justice. These included books such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, Jason Reynolds’s and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys, and the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Also challenged were online research databases provided by EBSCO and Gale Cengage, based on unsubstantiated and unverified claims that these databases, curated to be appropriate for each age and educational level, contain explicit sexual content.
Like the challenges to LGBTQIA+ materials, many of these challenges are pursued by well-organized pressure groups intent on banning books and resources they deem pornographic or unsuitable for minors. A serious concern is their efforts to pass state legislation that would make it possible to sue or criminally prosecute librarians and educators for providing or lending constitutionally protected, mainstream materials to minors. Among the works identified as unsuitable by these groups are Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.
The decision made by county commissioners in Citrus County, Florida, to deny funding for a digital subscription to the New York Times demonstrated how partisan differences can impair public library users’ access to high quality information resources. The commissioners unanimously denied a request from their local library to spend $2,700 annually on the digital resource, stating that the paper is “fake news” and that they “agree with Donald Trump.” Approval of the subscription fee would have reduced costs for the library and expanded access from four print copies of the newspaper to unlimited digital access for every person holding a Citrus County Library card.
A number of high-profile challenges to materials in prison libraries and classrooms drew attention to the chronic and arbitrary censorship of reading materials and information resources in prisons. Reports compiled by PEN America revealed that thousands of mainstream publications—including fiction, nonfiction, and periodicals—have been banned from prisons on the grounds that the materials pose a threat to the “good order” or security of the prison. But a close examination of these lists reveals that many books banned from prisons share a focus on social justice, race relations, or racism in the administration of the criminal justice system. In one instance, prison staff entered a library maintained by the University of Illinois Education Justice Project at the Danville Correctional Center and removed 200 books that were previously approved for use by people who are incarcerated and were earning college degrees through the program. Among the titles removed from the library were W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Despite all these challenges and concerns, libraries across the country continued to be welcoming community institutions that foster intellectual freedom and inclusivity by developing and defending collections, resources, and services that reflect and celebrate the diversity of their communities.
Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2019. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 377 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2019. Overall, 566 books were targeted. Here are the “Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2019,” along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:
1 | George
by Alex Gino
Challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”
2 | Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out
by Susan Kuklin
Challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased
3 | A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
by Jill Twiss, illustrated by E. G. Keller
Challenged and vandalized for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning
4 | Sex is a Funny Word
by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth
Challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”
5 | Prince & Knight
written by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint
6 | I am Jazz
by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged”
7 | The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood
Banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones” and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and certain illustrations.
8 | Drama
written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
Challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”
9 | Harry Potter series
by J.K. Rowling
Banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals
10 | And Tango Makes Three
by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole
Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content
Privacy. In January 2019, the ALA Council unanimously approved the addition of a new, seventh article to the ALA Library Bill of Rights: “All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.”
The new article establishes a robust information norm in support of library users’ privacy rights and provides libraries and librarians with a strong foundation for advocating for users’ privacy rights. Recent controversies concerning third-party library service and resource providers’ practices regarding the collection, storage, and use of library users’ personal data and circulation records prompted ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee to form a working group to establish privacy guidelines for library vendors.
The ALA continues to fight for an open internet. In October 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to issue its 2018 Order eliminating network neutrality protections. However, the Association was heartened by the court’s ruling that states may fill the gap left by the FCC’s abdication of its broadband authority. The court vacated the portion of the Order in which the FCC attempted to preempt state or local efforts to protect an open internet.
As ALA President Wanda Kay Brown stated, “Without strong and clear net neutrality protections in place, there is nothing to stop internet service providers from blocking or throttling legal internet traffic or setting up commercial arrangements where certain traffic is prioritized.”
Building 21st-century skills
Libraries are at the forefront of efforts to promote digital literacy. ALA’s Digital Literacy Task Force defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” In the process, libraries have forged partnerships that play a critical role in fostering digital literacy.
Building on the strong partnership between ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office and Google through the multiyear Libraries Ready to Code initiative, the $1 million Libraries Lead with Digital Skills initiative launched at the end of January 2019 with a 50-state tour kickoff at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Following each state tour, the Public Library Association opened grant applications to local public libraries that are working to develop digital skills. To support outreach in each state, ALA collaborated with the Chief Offices of State Library Agencies and ALA chapters to promote the grant opportunities in their states, providing resources and updates.
Libraries help bridge the digital divide experienced by families facing economic challenges and lacking access to such technologies as smartphones and tablets.
Plano (Tex.) Public Library System offers bilingual backpacks that include books, flash cards, and other resources to support language learning.
- The National Center for Education Statistics found that a student’s access to digital resources at home greatly affects academic and literacy scores. On average, those without access scored at least 8% lower in core subjects. Even more, their literacy scores were more than 20% lower than students with access.
- The Pew Research Center notes that more than 25% of low-income households do not have a smartphone. Nearly 50% do not have a computer, and even more do not own a tablet. In contrast, more than half of higher income families have more than one device.
- Research by Digital Equity for Learning estimates at least 20% of mobile-only families have too many people sharing the same device. As a result, there is not enough access for everyone.
- Libraries connect families of all ages, incomes, and abilities with a variety of tech experiences, offering such resources as STEAM kits and bilingual backpacks with DVDs and tablets providing learning language tools.
Services to teens
A 2016 World Economic Forum report (PDF) underscores that 65% of children entering elementary school will be employed in jobs that do not yet exist. The same report also notes, “Workers will need to have the appropriate skills enabling them to thrive in the workplace of the future and the ability to continue to retrain throughout their lives.” In June 2019, the Afterschool Alliance reported (PDF) that employers ranked critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and collaboration, and communication skills as essential competencies for entry into the workforce.
Similarly, a May 2019 report (PDF) produced by the Connected Learning Alliance notes that in order for young people to develop an occupational identity (a vision of their future selves in the workforce, a knowledge of what they like to do and what their skills are, and a sense of where they belong) requires exposure to role models, engagement in activities parallel to professional practice, and participation in authentic communities of practice through work experiences, internships, and civic action.
Taking the workforce development needs of teens into account, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of ALA, is leading two IMLS-funded projects that are designed to help library staff support teens in gaining the skills necessary to succeed in the workforce of the future.
Eighty small, rural, and tribal library staff members throughout the United States were trained as a part of the Future Ready with the Library project. They gained skills in working with their communities to assist middle schoolers in identifying their interests and learning with and from peers and adult experts about those passions. Library services developed through this project include the Pottsboro (Tex.) Library and the Cherokee (Iowa) Public Library, which both produced e-sports programs. As a part of these initiatives, teens who are passionate about gaming can build critical-thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork skills, and at the same time learn about how a gaming-related interest can lead to future work opportunities.
The Transforming Teen Services: A Train the Trainer Approach initiative brings 45 states, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the District of Columbia together in support of library staff acquiring skills to help teens find their interests and gain the computational-thinking literacies required for their future work. In each of the states and territories, at least one staff member from the state library agency and one public library front-line staff member are offering training. In the first 18 months of the project, more than 500 library staff were trained; by the end of the project on June 30, 2021, some 7,000 library staffers will be bringing their newly acquired skills to more than 100,000 youths.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion
Equitable access means more than equality. It includes working to make sure community members have all the resources they need. These needs may differ as a result of their race and ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identification, socioeconomic status, or physical ability.
In 2019, ALA and several other library associations in the US pledged their commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). In a joint statement they declared, “Libraries serve as the cornerstone of our society. Regardless of the type of library, constituency, or region, we stand together to support the efforts of libraries to provide equitable access for all through inclusive collections, resources, services, and programs.”
That statement was backed up by efforts across the spectrum of library service during 2019. ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo and her Diversity Advisory Board developed an EDI video series to give visibility to a diverse representation of library workers, champions, and patrons to help deepen the understanding of the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion in action in our nation’s libraries.
ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services (ODLOS) worked diligently to promote EDI, facilitating the first ever EDIcon, a half-day training for library and information services audiences that introduced foundational concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion within a social justice framework. In its pilot year, ODLOS offered the workshop 10 times at various sites across the country. The training encouraged participants to see equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of everyone’s everyday work. ODLOS staff also engaged in short- and long-term consultation with several public and academic libraries and library associations.
In partnership with the Office for Intellectual Freedom, ODLOS launched a new resource on hateful conduct in libraries. This document responds to requests by ALA members seeking to address a spike in reported hate crimes in libraries across the US, which ALA began tracking in 2016. It outlines best practices on how to create an environment that discourages hate speech and hateful conduct in the library, recommends what steps library workers should take after an incident, and suggests how libraries can better reflect the needs and values of their communities. Hate crimes in libraries can be reported via ALA’s online form.
Other resources ODLOS introduced in 2019 include two updated outreach toolkits, “Literacy for All: Adult Literacy through Libraries (PDF)” and “Keys to Engaging Older Adults (PDF),” as well as a Libraries Respond page on cyber-bullying and doxxing.
The need for diverse books. In her keynote speech at the American Association of School Librarians National Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in November 2019, Ellen Oh, children’s book author and president and cofounder of We Need Diverse Books, raised the issue of the lack of diversity in children’s books. “There are still more books about animals and inanimate objects than people of color,” Oh said, citing statistics collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education.
Ellen Oh, children’s book author and president and cofounder of We Need Diverse Books, raised the issue of the lack of diversity in children’s books In her keynote speech at the American Association of School Librarians National Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in November 2019.
Although much work remains to be done, 2019 proved a milestone year for literary events and cultural celebrations that reflect the library world’s commitment to EDI. ALA’s Youth Media Awards at the ALA 2020 Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia included award announcements from the American Indian Library Association, the Association of Jewish Libraries, and the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.
The 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance and Sunrise Celebration took place in January 2019. In addition to a keynote address by author Jeanne Theoharis, library leaders Virginia Moore and Satia Orange gave remarks on their shared vision for creating a space for library workers to honor King’s principles of nonviolent social change and racial equality for all. 2019 also marked the 50th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. Library professionals were encouraged to host their own programming surrounding the awards .
ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., that featured Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies speaking on current events and human rights.
Assistive technology and accessibility. In the United States, nearly 10 million persons are hard of hearing, and close to one million are functionally deaf, according to the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Libraries have promoted improved assistive technologies for many years. Today, there are assistive listening technologies, real-time captioning services, internet captioning applications, a wide range of relay services, digital television with captions, and video remote interpreting services. Many libraries provide American Sign Language interpreters for programs, and some include sound amplification and digital loop technology.
Assistive technology can include low- or high-tech options that improve how individuals interact and engage with products, programs, and services. This is one area where libraries are working to incorporate new and existing options so that patrons with disabilities can maximize their library experiences. Libraries can partner with community organizations that specialize in assistive technology, seek feedback from community members who need access to assistive equipment, and work with state technology centers to open the door wider for patrons with disabilities.
Libraries are paying extra attention to patrons with special needs. One example is the Louisville (Ohio) Public Library, which, with the assistance of a $50,000 LSTA grant, opened its Sensory Space in August 2018. It offers teen sensory relaxation sessions, adult sensory exploration, sensory storytimes, and other activities for patrons on the autism spectrum. Louisville is one of the first public libraries to offer a free multisensory environment, which is housed in the library’s Discovery Center.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services includes accessibility as one of its 10 priority areas. Our nation’s libraries strive to create environments, services, and programming that are accessible to all. Accessibility can include a range of options that improve patron participation in library programs and experience with library resources. Libraries are expanding their reach to include persons with disabilities.
Local public, state, university, and school libraries are welcoming and including deaf and hard of hearing adults and children. Maryland State Library sponsors the Deaf Culture Digital Library (DCDL). In partnership with the Maryland Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Montgomery County Public Library, and liaisons in county public library systems, DCDL offers online resources on deaf culture, programming, and training for library staff in the state.
Public libraries that offer services for the deaf and hard of hearing include the San Francisco Public Library and the District of Columbia Public Library. Tennessee’s Library Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, a statewide special library headquartered at Nashville Public Library, offers assistive devices, media resources, and in-service training programs. The Deaf Literacy Center of Pinellas (Fla.) Public Library Cooperative serves the greater Tampa area.
National Black Deaf Advocates, the official advocacy organization for thousands of deaf African Americans, offers books on deaf culture not always available in public libraries.
The Deaf Literacy Center of Pinellas (Fla.) Public Library Cooperative serves the greater Tampa area.
Other library accessibility efforts include:
- The Center for Accessibility, part of the District of Columbia Public Library, supports patrons through its DC Talking Book and Braille Library, part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. There are three librarians, each overseeing one area: service to the deaf community, service to the blind community, and assistive technology resources. It plans to hire a children’s librarian. Successful programming for youth has included a Braille book club for girls, a Vision Impaired Teens program (in partnership with DC Public Schools that provides technology and employment training), and a series of classes on gaming for blind youth led by a volunteer from the Federal Communications Commission.
- Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library’s Inclusive Services provides unique programs for children and teens both with and without disabilities. It works closely with its community of disabled persons in Brooklyn, attending meetings and discussing ways to make the library more accessible. Two examples of technology that assists young patrons include adaptive switch toys that allow children with limited fine and gross motor skills to play with toys, and message communication devices that can record answers to questions or the chorus of a song or book, so that children who are nonverbal can participate actively in programs.
- Bloomfield Township (Mich.) Public Library developed an Accessibility Support Collection that contains adaptive technology. It makes available adaptive toys with large buttons for easy activation, assistive tools such as reading pens that read text for the visually impaired, and adaptive accessories such as mice and screen-reader software for PCs at inclusive technology stations.
Fine-free libraries. In 2019, the ALA Council passed a resolution (PDF) declaring library fines a form of social inequity, presenting “an economic barrier to access of library materials and services.” It urged libraries to scrutinize “their practices of imposing fines on library patrons and actively move towards eliminating them.”
Libraries nationwide are following the trend of dropping fines for overdue books, among them Chicago Public Library. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot stated, “Like too many Chicagoans, I know what it is like to grow up in financially challenging circumstances and understand what it is like to be just one bill or one mistake away from crushing debt. The bold reforms we’re taking to make the Chicago Public Library system fine-free and forgive City Sticker debt will end the regressive practices disproportionately impacting those who can least afford it, ensure every Chicagoan can utilize our city’s services and resources, and eliminate the cycles of debt and generational poverty because of a few mistakes.” She noted that one out of three patrons were unable to check out items because they owe $10 or more in fines and fees.
The San Francisco Public Library’s decision to go fine free was based on a study conducted in conjunction with the San Francisco Financial Justice Project of the Treasurer’s Office. It found that eliminating the overdue fines increased patron access to materials and services, reduced the inequitable impact of overdue fines, and improved patron relationships with their library.
In adopting the fine-free model, the Free Library of Philadelphia delivered an early Valentine’s Day present to its patrons. “By saying goodbye to fines, we’re welcoming back the nearly 88,000 cardholders who are currently unable to take full advantage of the library due to owing fines. We’re also anticipating increases in circulation, an uptick in new library card signups, and more overall visits to libraries throughout the city,” said Siobhan A. Reardon, president and director of the Free Library. “It’s going to be a positive change in many ways, and I’m so proud that we’ll be one of the largest library systems in the country to eliminate this penalty.”
Libraries’ mission of providing access to all was severely hamstrung by a series of decisions by major publishers in 2019.
The Hachette Book Group (HBG) changed its digital lending model for libraries, replacing its perpetual ownership model with a two-year access plan for ebooks and digital audiobooks. HBG, one of the “Big Five” publishers (the others are HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster), also decreased library prices for ebooks and digital audiobooks by as much as 25%; however, the initial “discount” will be eliminated if the library renews its access to those titles.
Simon & Schuster also altered its lending model for libraries. It replaced perpetual access for digital audiobook lending with two-year access at prices ranging from $39.99 to $79.99, placing a financial burden on public libraries and limiting access to the public.
But Macmillan Publishers created a tsunami within the library world when it placed an embargo on sales of new ebook titles to libraries. Beginning November 1, 2019, Macmillan restricted library systems of all sizes from purchasing more than one copy of a new ebook title. Eight weeks after its release, libraries can buy an unlimited number of two-year licenses for a new ebook title.
Macmillan’s decision galvanized a strong response. In August 2019, ALA and its Public Library Association division launched an #eBooksForAll campaign, rolling out the website as a hub of information and resources to mobilize the public. Advocates promoted the campaign to patrons, publishing op-eds in local news media, releasing organizational statements opposing the embargo, and flooding the email inbox of Macmillan CEO John Sargent.
The #eBooksForAll petition gathered more than 250,000 signatures of supporters from library workers and the general public by early 2020. ALA extended the scope of its advocacy by contributing to a congressional investigation into antitrust behavior in digital markets, and several ALA chapters began to explore legislative action at the state level.
From left: Alan S. Inouye, ALA senior director of public policy and government relations; PLA Executive Director Barb Macikas; and ALA Past President Sari Feldman; deliver boxes full of petitions to the offices of Macmillan Publishers on October 30, 2019.
I Love My Librarian Award
Each year, based on nominations from the public, ALA honors the lasting contributions of librarians working in public, school, college, community college, and university libraries with the I Love My Librarian Award. In 2019, library users nationwide submitted 1,974 nominations detailing how their favorite librarians have gone above and beyond to improve community members’ lives.
The honorees were:
- Jesús Alonso-Regalado, subject librarian for history, Latin American studies, and Romance languages at the University at Albany Libraries, New York, supports teaching and learning through information literacy instruction and his commitment to Open Access.
- Stephanie Dannehl, school librarian and tech integration specialist at Bertrand (Neb.) Community School, has developed a program to bring in village residents as guest readers and to teach students’ families new technology skills year-round.
- Cathy Evans, director of libraries at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Tennessee, has created a culture of reading by ensuring that all students are informed, critical thinkers who are prepared to contribute to a global society.
- Melissa Glanden, librarian at Powhatan (Va,) High School, has transformed the school’s library. Her introduction of new technologies, a makerspace, and dedicated zones within the library sparked an uptick in visits and circulation of books and other materials.
- Mary Anne Hansen, research services librarian at Montana State University, Bozeman, leads the library’s Tribal College Librarians Professional Development Institute, which provides key opportunities for librarians serving Indigenous college students.
- Homa Naficy, executive director of the American Place at Hartford (Conn.) Public Library, assists immigrants and refugees with English-language classes, job assistance, computer training, and GED preparation as they adapt to a new home.
- Maria Papanastassiou, Kids’ World assistant manager at the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Memorial Library, serves children who are differently abled. Her work, passion, and dedication has helped families with diverse needs find a home at the library.
- Leah Plocharczyk, interim director of Florida Atlantic University’s John D. MacArthur Library in Jupiter, has made a powerful impact through the book club she created for adults with intellectual disabilities.
- Janet Tom, reference librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, was nominated for her ability to bring taboo subjects out of the dark and discuss them with care and respect. Her innovative “Death and Dying” program series was instrumental in helping community members deal with grief and dispelling the stigma around discussions of mortality.
- Tracie Walker-Reed, library media specialist at H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas, Texas, tutors and mentors at-risk and low-income students, supporting the learning process through instruction, technology, and access to print and digital library books.
Homa Naficy speaking at the 2020 I Love My Librarian Award Ceremony at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Philadelphia.
Libraries play an important role in promoting community awareness about resilience, climate change, and a sustainable future. They are also leading by example in taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint.
ALA added sustainability as a core value of librarianship in January 2019, committing to the “triple bottom line” framework for sustainability recommended by the ALA Special Task Force on Sustainability. This tripod consists of practices that are environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially equitable.
In adopting sustainability as a core value, ALA recognizes the findings in a 2018 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (PDF). The report, written and edited in October 2018 by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies, found that the immediate consequences of climate change are far more dire than originally predicted, calling for a transformation of the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”
Libraries like the Shelter Island (N.Y.) Library are plowing the path of sustainability. The library earned a Green Business Partnership Certification. Its green activities include decreasing paper usage and discontinuing the purchase of single-use water bottles. It also educates patrons by hosting programs that encourage green practices, including one session on how to upgrade aging septic systems.
Other libraries like the Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Library (SMPL) are offering more programs on the climate crisis. One, “Hope for Our Planet,” featured a speaker from the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an environmental advocacy group that prescribes remedies on the local, national, and international level. SMPL also offers a Green Prize for Sustainable Literature in partnership with the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment.
In addition, The ALA’s Sustainability Round Table offers programming at ALA conferences on climate change and other environmental issues. Its Enviro Scan Taskforce maintains a sustainability database of resources on Zotero that can be helpful in planning library programs.
Libraries of the future
The ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries works to identify global trends that affect libraries. Over the past year, libraries and library workers have continued to demonstrate their ability to adapt their services to new and emerging community priorities.
Mobility and transportation. The rise in popularity of electric scooters and bicycles, expanded bike-sharing programs, and an increased emphasis on commuting by public buses and trains demonstrate a growing interest in sustainable forms of transportation. Across the country, library workers have begun to explore their role in supporting this movement, and several libraries are partnering with transportation agencies to expand access for residents.
The Omaha (Neb.) Public Library (OPL) and the Heartland Bike Share program created a partnership offering library cardholders access to a B-cycle pass for up to five days. Each OPL branch has four passes; patrons can check their availability in the library’s online catalog. Similar to the library’s zoo and museum passes, the Heartland B-cycle passes are another way that the library ensures that residents have equal access to community resources.
As part of the city’s “Go Boston 2030” plan to build a safe, reliable, and equitable transportation network, in May 2019 Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced a partnership with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to make the system’s CharlieCards available at several Boston Public Library branch locations. With better access to these more affordable fares, the partnership encourages more trips by public transportation that help reduce traffic congestion and emissions from motor vehicles.
A partnership between Knoxville (Tenn.) Area Transit and Knox County Public Library (KCPL) makes public transportation more enjoyable with a Books on Buses program that encourages passengers to grab a new book as they board their bus. The library’s Friends group donates the books for the program as part of its Books in the Community program.
Colocation. Libraries have long served as hubs for services and programs that are responsive to community needs. In recent years, several libraries have begun exploring colocation of their physical branches with community and campus services, creating efficiencies and new benefits for their communities.
The Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Housing Authority opened three new city-owned facilities that colocate branch libraries with public housing. Beyond the financial benefits and savings realized by constructing and operating a single city-owned building, the colocation creates a cultural asset that helps integrate socioeconomic diversity into changing urban neighborhoods.
At the University of Arizona in Tucson, a new Student Success District will bring together an updated Main Library, the Albert B. Weaver Science-Engineering Library, the university’s Bear Down Gym, and a new four-story Student Success Building into an interconnected district designed to serve student’s 24/7 learning needs. The district’s indoor and outdoor spaces help support out-of-classroom learning that is collaborative, hands-on, and designed for technological engagement.
As District of Columbia Public Library continues with the transformation of its Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan has indicated he plans to work across city services to create a “city within a city” with room for municipal agencies and hotel services within the new building. The library’s prime location could provide services like DC Health Link with a physical office space within the library for direct connection with city residents.
Making access easier. Expanding access to information resources is at the core of what libraries do. Making that access easier has been a frequent opportunity for innovation in libraries, which continue to offer surprising service enhancements that help bring information to their communities.
The Mountain View (Calif.) Public Library piloted a BookBot created by Google’s experimental Area 120 division. The wheeled personal delivery robot only operated within a limited radius of the library but allowed residents to schedule pickup of their library materials directly from their doorstep. While the BookBot pilot lasted only a few months, it was popular. Residents would stop to take photos of it as it carried out its book tasks. And BookBot demonstrated one possible direction for the future of library circulation.
In 2019, the Mountain View (Calif.) Public Library piloted a BookBot created by Google’s experimental Area 120 division.
Self-service smart lockers, like those used by Amazon and UPS, are providing libraries with new opportunities to streamline holds and reserves processes. At the Toledo–Lucas County (Ohio) Public Library, placement of smart lockers in the libraries’ 24/7 lobbies allows community members to collect library materials anytime. At Arizona State University in Phoenix, students can request delivery to self-service book delivery lockers at Armstrong Hall, across the campus from the university’s Hayden Library. And at the Topeka and Shawnee County (Kan.) Public Library, residents can ask for books to be delivered to smart lockers at either a community center or a local Hy-Vee grocery store.
The Hinsdale (Ill.) Public Library has taken notes from the subscription economy to introduce new adult, teen (grades 6–12), and junior (grades 4–5) book boxes that feature preselected, newly released books—along with fun bookish treats. Library staff work with readers to curate book selections suited to their specified tastes. Each month, subscribers visit the library to pick up their book box and offer feedback on the previous month’s selections. The program leverages staff expertise in reader services while offering delight and surprise to library borrowers.
Artificial intelligence. How is AI changing libraries? And how will it continue to change them?
That is a hotly debated question. Past ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo wrote in March 2019 that it is “time to include AI on our professional agenda and in our national conversation.” The itinerary for that conversation will likely offer challenges to such concerns as privacy, intellectual freedom, and access.
The University of Rhode Island opened its Artificial Intelligence Lab in September 2018, the first AI facility housed in a library. The cross-disciplinary lab is open to all students, faculty, and staff for research into robotics, wearable technology, smart cities, and technological ethics.
The Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library partnered with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries and Harvard’s metaLAB to host the installation of a “Laughing Room,” in which participants enter an artificially intelligent room that plays a laugh track whenever something is said that the room’s algorithm deems funny.
Also at MIT, work is being done on building a technical infrastructure so its collections are accessible by APIs and therefore can be used by machine-learning algorithms. Library Director Chris Bourg said it is important for academic libraries to make their collections readable by AI tools so that reputable scholarly literature is available.
Other new developments include the use of bots in academic libraries. At the University of Oklahoma Library, a chatbot assists students with such questions as where to find subject-specific databases. Library officials hope that AI will enhance collaboration by matching peers in different disciplines, but they also wonder whether the technology will lead to human librarians getting replaced by their technological equivalents.
The bottom line was stated succinctly by Garcia-Febo: “Librarians and library professionals will need to be at the forefront to support communities as these technologies transform our world.”