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.
http://www.ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/mediapresscenter/presskits/2009stateofamericaslibraries/2009statehome.cfm (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.