Working Together for the Library of the Future, Part I

rod gauvin
by Rod Gauvin

ALTAFF President


Libraries of all types, shapes, and sizes face new, daunting challenges in the 21st century. Despite a plethora of new services and products offered to patrons, libraries do not always enjoy the support they need and deserve. Why is it that libraries struggle with funding and support when we are living through an information explosion in the sheer quantity of both data delivered and new information products?

The value proposition for libraries in the 19th and 20th centuries was very clear. As an 8-year-old boy of immigrant parents, I didn’t need an explanation of the value of a library card. When my dad took me by the hand to register for my first library card at the Springfield (Mass.) Public Library on State Street, I understood the opportunity. In a fixed, tangible, media world, the ability to borrow valuable works was well understood by every patron. It drove patron support and validated why we need libraries.

Today, there are fundamental shifts that have occurred as libraries have moved from purchasing print and other fixed media sources to subscribing to electronic products. Anecdotal evidence suggest that fixed media purchases may have declined by more than 50%, with a commensurate increase in electronic purchases over the past 10 years. The range of services offered has expanded dramatically as well. It is not clear that this shift in the purchase of electronic resources has been followed by a similar level of patron appreciation and understanding.

We know that many state consortia spend millions of dollars purchasing electronic resources. Further, we have first-hand reports from many states that less than 10% of the population uses or are informed about these statewide purchases. So, even when libraries have done a good job of acquiring valuable resources and promulgated their existence, patron knowledge and recognition are lacking.

This is further complicated by the perception that all information is free on the Web. The mantra “Everything is free on the Web, why should I go to the library?” or worse yet, “Why should we fund libraries when we can get whatever we need on the Web?” minimizes the value of libraries.

A 2010 update to the classic OCLC study Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources indicates that in most communities, more than 60% of the population has a library card. Also, in 2010, Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study, conducted by ALA and the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland, libraries nationwide reported an increase in public use of online resources, especially to support job seeking and e-government transactions. Despite the high adoption rate of library cards and widespread use of resources, we have not successively cracked the nut of getting patrons to understand the value of libraries in the new digital era. This reminds me of a quote from the director of a medium sized library system in the Midwest who said “We have allocated enormous funds to electronic resources. We are spending more than a million dollars now in the purchase of electronic databases and it is not translating into patron acceptance, appreciation, or understanding.”

There is no going back; libraries need to deliver digital resources as part of a broader mission to remain at the center of their communities. That is true for school, public, and academic libraries. The challenge ahead is how to frame the value proposition and to get this new library of the future accepted and appreciated in a way that is well understood by patrons in a non-print-based world. It doesn’t matter whether it is a budget resolution, a fund drive, or a bond referendum, unless patrons have embraced the value of the library, we can never be certain that support will be there.

So, how do we create a new value proposition for libraries? Supporting ALTAFF by joining or renewing brings all of the citizen groups together. This is a basic place to start. We need all of the citizen groups and library administrators working together in closer alignment if we are going to address this challenge. Clearly, there is still much to do to raise the profile of the new digital library of the 21st century that provides a much broader range of services to the whole community.

In the next column, I will follow-up on this issue and begin an exploration of things we might consider to move this agenda forward.

more articles from ALTAFF president Rod Gauvin.