Sunday, October 18, 2009

Types of Libraries: Public

Are public libraries necessary with the continued proliferation of internet sources? How can librarians fund public libraries and services with continued government budgetary constraints? These are just some of the questions being asked about public libraries, and they do not come with cookie cutter answers. “Of all library types, public libraries serve the information needs of the widest variety of population groups, including children, students, professionals, the elderly, and all groups in-between” (Haycock, p. 43). Most Americans have made use of their local public library at least once in their lives, and for the vast majority, several other times, too.

Services range from story time hours for children, summer reading programs for children and teens, readers’ advisory lists, book clubs, research assistance, computer classes, and more. With respect to public access technologies provided, public libraries often have computers, wireless access, online databases, downloadable audio and video, online reference help, micro reading machines, etc. Having this many technologies available to patrons comes at a large monetary cost. The replacement cycle of technology is such that librarians are always planning for the next upgrade, even after the most recent one has been completed (Bertot, 2009). “These institutions are normally supported by local, state, or federal monies and have ‘open door’ policies with very few user restrictions” (Haycock p. 43-44). Nearly all services are provided to the public for free or at a minimal cost.

“In June 2008, the ALA Office for Library Advocacy (OLA) reported that, despite some positive trends, much of the information it had gathered on library funding continued to reflect cuts affecting operating hours, staffing, collection and materials acquisition, programming, services, and facility expansion/enhancement” (2009statehome). At the same time these budget cuts are taking place, more people than ever are using their public libraries. It appears in times of economic trouble, people recognize the inherent need for a public library in their community, to provide vital services to all, regardless of socio-economic status. Unfortunately, while the need is there, the money is not. When a local or state government has to decide between cutting library funding or police/fire and rescue, they choose the former.

As a result of the budgetary constraints, more and more public libraries are hiring fewer librarians and are instead shifting the workload to paraprofessionals, who come at a cheaper cost. So where do librarians fit in the future of public libraries? Carol Sheffer, a public library director attempted to provide an answer. When discussing where librarians fit with the dawn of the information age, she described how librarians can vet sources of information, recognize trusted websites, help users obtain the most accurate and timely data, and understand not every answer appears on the first screen of results from an Internet search. Furthermore, librarians determine what information is really needed as opposed to answering the first question posed by the user, use their knowledge and skills to recommend information and suggest pleasure reading, offer moral support and a friendly ear, know when to let more independent users go their own way and play a back-up role, and serve as neutral advisors (Sheffer, 2009).

If libraries have reduced funding, public libraries need to think inside and outside the box for ways to raise their own funds. Charging increased fines is one option or charging a minimal fee (around a dollar) to check out DVDs and other technologies could also generate some income. I have heard about some libraries starting to offer passport services during certain hours as a way to increase their funds. No, these options may not fit nicely with the ideals librarians hold themselves to. However, what good are high ideals of free information for all if the libraries can only afford to have hours two days a week, or even worse, cease to exist? Compromises need to be found between keeping true to what public libraries are for and recognizing they need to raise money to continue to exist and serve the community. There are no easy answers, but inaction is not the solution.


2009statehome, American Library Association, April 08, 2009. (Accessed October 18, 2009) Document ID: 537983

Bortat, J. (2009). Public access technologies in public libraries: effects and implications. Information Technology and Libraries, 28(2), 81-92.

Haycock, K. & Sheldon, B. E. (Eds.). (2008). The portable MLIS: insights from the experts. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Sheffer, C. (2009). The future of public libraries. Public Libraries, 48(3), 4-5.


Florence said...

Patrons take the public library for granted. We are raised in towns where the public library is always there. It just exists, always has and always will, right? Then one day, we show up at the library and--what?--the hours have been cut in half! Then we start asking questions. It's a disappointing scenario, but one that has certainly occured in many towns and cities over the past decade.

I think that what we need is more public awareness of the problem. Town citizens need to be part of the process. They should be allowed to choose by voting: do they want to pay more in taxes in order to adequately fund their libraries, or would they prefer to pay less and receive less?

I think most would agree that the public library directly effects the quality of life in cities and towns. We love our libraries, but we need to be informed of the high cost of maintaining those libraries. Town library patrons need to understand, for example, that things like computers and their upkeep cost lots of money. We all need to know that our libraries won't always just be there in the future just because they existed in our past. They have to be paid for by us, the patrons. So, it's a matter of better informing the public about the increasing costs of maintaining their libraries and allowing them to participate in making choices where the public library is concerned.

Craig Buno said...

After reading your post it reminded me that most people do not truly understand how public libraries are funded. I also have to agree with Florence that they are taken for granted. My local library has a link on their website that informs patrons how the library is funded and to dispel some of the myths of said funding, such as they make money on the volume of patrons that use the library. They also have a calculator like application to show how much the library is worth to you based on the transactions and service you use. Such as books checked out or Internet usage. It was really quite neat to see the results of how much the library is worth to you. It also let you put in the tax value of your home and show you how much of that tax went to the library. My results for a given month were $165. I think this will help people to understand the true worth of their local library.
Here is the link if anyone wants to check it out.

Adrianne said...

"Most Americans have made use of their local public library at least once in their lives, and for the vast majority, several other times, too."

The above statement is something I can easily agree with. I can't say that I know anybody that has honestly not been to a public library at one time or another. Public libraries are the backbone for information in the community and without them communities wouldn't be the same.

kbankovich said...

Public libraries are essential for a well rounded community, and like all other civic entities, it is susceptible to budget constraints. To keep public libraries vibrant, I guess it falls on voters and some proactive librarians.

I may be way off base here, but I wonder if some vamped up marketing before voters go to the polls would help, or fundraising, such as creating websites at a reduced cost for local businesses.

Wendy Schneider said...

More public awareness of the needs of the public library and voting is a great idea. In fact, in New York State that is the way the library budgets are decided. The community comes out and votes. One thing that is stressed in is that it's very important to educate the public on why certain budgets are needed without persuading their votes. There are a variety of different ways this system works. They begin with open communication with the community through flyers, news letters, meetings, and speaking engagements. The needs of the library is at the focal point of these articles and meetings. The article discusses two different types of campaigns; an educational campaign and an advocacy campaign. The purpose of an educational campaign is to ensure that the public understands the facts involved. This type of campaign would involve speaking engagements, newsletter articles, and the printing of ads, flyers, and other information. The advocacy campaign is to influence voters to either vote in favor or in opposition to a ballot proposition. A library cannot use public tax money on an advocacy campaign. It is best if a separate group using private funding conducts the advocacy effort. A library's existing Friends group may take on this responsibility. However, in some cases, an ad-hoc citizens group may conduct advocacy efforts. That group might include people in the community who are passionate about the library and are willing to donate funds and their time to influence the outcome of the vote. Advocacy campaigns might make use of the following:

•newspaper ads
•letters to the editor
•phone calls to prospective voters
•speaking engagements
•other measures to urge people to vote in favor of a ballot proposition

Areford, L. (2009, July) New York State Library retrieved from on October 22, 2009 Web Site

Unknown said...

I absolutely agree with the previous comments regarding the need to raise public awareness regarding the value of a public library. As someone mentioned, the public library is so familiar to us that we do begin to take it for granted. Unfortunately, I'm afraid it will become one of those things that we fail to recognize the value in until it's gone.

On a more positive note, maybe we can take some comfort in the example of motion pictures versus television. When TV was introduced, many people simply assumed it would "replace" films, just the way people assume the internet can replace books/libraries. In reality, the films needed to and did change (you can argue whether it was for the better) but, here we are over fifty years later and the film industry doesn't seem to be suffering too much. Public libraries will need to find a new niche in the public's consciousness and find new ways to sdvertise and even support itself but, I believe and hope, it is far from doomed.