CONTINUED RELEVANCE OF PUBLIC LIBRARIES
Most Americans do still see public libraries as important institutions that provide critical resources, with two-thirds saying that closing their local library would have a major impact on their community. The nature of what the library provides has expanded far beyond access to books and computers to include offerings like toy lending, digital media, summer meal programs, homework help, and educational programming ranging from tax preparation to meditation.
One of the most important resources found in a public library is the space itself. In many communities they serve as an important “third space,” a location other than work or home where people gather, share ideas, and build relationships. They are a neighborhood’s living room. For some, this may be their local coffee shop, house of worship, or hair dresser. Libraries create this platform for social interaction, but without an implied donation or purchase and open to all equally, regardless of age, income, ethnicity, income or physical limitations.
Uniquely positioned to maintain a support structure where they are needed most, libraries serve as community-builders in low-income areas. This is especially important to Cleveland Public Library since more than 35% of residents of the City of Cleveland live below the poverty line, almost triple the national average. As a trusted and invested community institution, the library can and does provide a safe space for connecting people to social services, both within their system and through other partnering institutions that administer critical services, like housing assistance and health care. Through their educational programming and strategic partnerships, libraries seek to level opportunity and create a means for stability and upward mobility.
Even with so many roles, public libraries are first and foremost places of learning. Early literacy programs prepare children for kindergarten, after school, and summer programs keep developing minds active and fed all year long, and adult programming empowers skill-building and creativity well after formal education is complete. Librarians embrace their role as teachers, trusted advisors, and de facto social workers as they guide people through their path of lifelong learning.
- In 2016, there were 1.4 billion in-person visits to public libraries across the U.S., 4 million visits each day
- 84% of libraries offer technology training to patrons on computer software use
- 9 out of 10 libraries offer free access to e-books
- 77% of libraries offer online health resources and 59% provide programs for finding health insurance online
- 73% of public libraries assist patrons with job application and interviewing skills
- A recent study shows that for every dollar spent on Ohio public libraries, Ohioans received $5.48 in economic value.
REDEFINING THE LIBRARY FOR A NETWORKED SOCIETY
When American industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated much of his vast fortune to help lay the foundation for a national library system, he was doing so in a world where access to information was scarce. Today, we have the opposite problem; there is an overload of information and we need help sorting through and understanding how to use it. In an era of unfiltered content, and even deliberate misinformation, librarians are trusted advisors who patrons rely on to guide them to the right material and educate them on the technological tools needed to navigate the digital landscape.
With nine-in-ten American adults reporting that they use the internet in some way, it is commonly thought that ready access to the internet is ubiquitous. However, less than half of people who live below the poverty line have high-speed internet access at home and one-third of adults over the age of 65 do not use the internet at all. Libraries play a critical role in bridging the digital divide for these disadvantaged populations by providing technology access and instruction, which helps develop the necessary skills to thrive in a digitally dependent society.
Technology has also allowed libraries to change the way they approach their collections. Moving into the digital sphere has allowed the library to expand its reach beyond its walls. Library websites and mobile apps create a sort of virtual branch with 24/7 access to e-books, music, and movies. Even with physical collection innovations in material management, software allows libraries to use a data-driven approach to collection. This means what is on the shelves is what the patrons look for most, while items unlikely to circulate are stored efficiently off site. This produces a more curated user experience that frees up valuable space without taking away access to books. Books are still what people most associate with a library and expect to see them when they walk in the door.
EVOLVING WITH CONSUMER EXPECTATIONS
Though unique in their breadth of services and the democratic manner in which they provide them, libraries increasingly compete for consumers. Commercial providers typically have more focused markets and have set a standard for customers to measure their experience, from downloading an e-book to using the library as you would a local coffee shop.
While people want a quality product, decisions are most often made based on convenience, which drives an increasing expectation for self-service and flexibility. This is partly addressed in details like sufficient comfortable furniture or well-placed power outlets, but also requires significant changes in the service model. Libraries continue to expand practices like self-check and online presence, even app creation to tailor the user experience. There is also an expectation that facilities are available on nights and weekends. This can lead to extended hours, but many libraries mitigate with limited services, such as after-hours access to meeting rooms or book lockers that allow patrons to collect holds when the library is closed. Ultimately, many of these changes also have the added benefit of freeing up librarians from executing transactions so they can be out on the floor pro-actively assisting people.
What patrons expect to see at their local library has expanded drastically. The public still wants to see print media at the library, but there is also an expectation that there are facilities for content creation, like makerspaces and recording studios, as well as an ever-increasing need for meeting and collaboration space. The public library serves as a remote office for many patrons. What comprises a library’s physical collection is changing and expanding, as seen in a movement towards the ‘library of things’ that includes lending items like tools, toys, electronics, or even art. The public has come to expect a one-stop shop that provides the specific resources they need in an active, diverse environment that also sparks curiosity about what they might pursue next.
As public libraries continue to build on their existing resources and let the public’s needs lead their development, they will remain critical centers for learning in the communities they serve.
What Are Today’s Libraries?
- Libraries are playrooms
- Libraries are a safe place
- Libraries are co-working spaces
- Libraries are online 24/7
- Libraries are makerspaces
- Libraries are art galleries
- Libraries are on your mobile device
- Libraries are classrooms