Sunday, September 18, 2011

What’s going to become of libraries?

by Christopher Schipper

A bright young Canadian woman asked me this question recently, as we waited, sheltered from an afternoon downpour, for a streetcar to return us downtown from the New Orleans Museum of Art. The subtext to her question was unmistakable: the eventual demise of libraries, in her mind, was a foregone conclusion. Such questions, sad to say, are neither unique, nor surprising. Reasons for such assumptions are obvious: the rise of the internet has made libraries, in the minds of many, superfluous. Financial support for institutions of education and culture has been in sharp decline for years; a recessionary economy makes the future of libraries perilous.

If the future of libraries is uncertain, the fate of the great city of New Orleans was even less certain not so long ago. I was in town recently for the American Library Association’s annual conference, as I had been five years before.  Ten short months after the disastrous hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the devastating flooding of the city, ALA opted to go ahead with plans for the annual conference. Flood debris still littered much of the city, high water marks were clearly visible, and many storefronts were empty. The people of New Orleans were warm and gracious, but the city seemed a shell of her former self. With a diminished population – and tax base, the future of New Orleans seemed pretty shaky.

When I read predictions of doom for libraries, I am now reminded of remarks I heard at the more recent ALA conference, most notably from the current mayor of New Orleans. I learned that, in the aftermath of the storm, governmental officials made a crucial realization: that libraries are an essential community component; in the days and weeks following Katrina, residents flocked to their libraries, to obtain information, and to communicate with loved ones. Conference attendees were delighted to hear that, with this in mind, New Orleans will have added twenty libraries by the end of 2011. In doing so, New Orleans has made an important investment in its future (this is no small accomplishment in the current ‘cut my taxes’ political environment).

It was not until the main collection of the Cedar Rapids Public Library (where I worked for 13 years) went underwater that, through the tireless efforts of my former colleagues, the federal government (FEMA) finally declared libraries to be an essential service. It’s important at this point to also note that, while the CRPL print collection was destroyed, that library endures.

Let’s consider for a moment what we mean by: library. These days, whether or not the word library represents a physical place is an open question for debate. Many of us have fond childhood memories of visiting the local library – often a Carnegie Library, themselves architectural monuments to Knowledge. Carnegie libraries were long the centerpiece of hundreds of small towns and cities; classically designed, and laden with books for community use and enrichment (libraries, incidentally, represent another American institution that is nearly extinct: the shared public space). Libraries, however, have never been only about books. Besides the Internet, technology has created what many regard as the greatest threat to the printed word and to libraries: the e-book. Indeed, I have many well-intentioned, passionate lovers and defenders of libraries, who regard the relationship between these formats as a competition – in other words, a zero sum game. Concerns that technology will replace beloved print editions are not without basis – a number of libraries have done exactly that, but for a number of reasons, I can’t see that happening everywhere any time soon. Time magazine recently published an article (“Is a Bookless Library Still a Library?”) that considers this question. Personally, I think a library without books would be a contradiction in terms, but this a possibility.  Information is now available in more formats than ever before; people use different formats because of different needs. Libraries are about much more than just the books they house – they’ve always been about connecting people with the information that they want or need; officials in New Orleans understand this, and the future of libraries in that great city, for now, is bright.

I’m the director of the campus library at San Juan College – a two-year school located in Farmington – in a remote and rural part of Northwest New Mexico. Farmington is often referred to as a border town, because of its proximity to the Navajo Nation. Our geographic location contributes to a very significant digital divide (the chasm between those who have access to the internet and those who do not), making any predictions for the obsolescence of print wildly premature. While we have e-books available for use, our print collection is still heavily used – in part because some of our users lack what many of us take for granted: home internet access, a personal computer, and in some cases – electricity. If not for the library, many library users would lack access to not only the internet, but information that is essential to their lives. In today’s political climate, perhaps the very egalitarian nature of libraries motivates some of the questions related to the value of libraries. While uncertainty about the viability and future of libraries (and despite the rise of the internet) persists, their continued use is not at all in question:
 Library use continues to climb. Sixty-eight percent of adults in the U.S. have public library cards, the greatest number since the ALA began collecting this data in 1990.
 Americans visit libraries more than 1.3 billion times and check out more than 2.1 billion items each year.  Users turn to their libraries for free books, to borrow DVDs, to learn new computer skills, to conduct job searches and more.
 Americans go to school, public and academic libraries 50 percent more often than they go to the movies.
 A 2006 poll conducted by the American Library Association found that 92 percent of respondents expect libraries to be needed in the future, despite the increased availability of information on the Internet.
 Nationally, the average user takes out more than seven books a year . . . but users turn to their libraries for more than books: to borrow DVDs, to learn new computer skills, to conduct job searches, and to participate in the activities of local and community organizations.
Nearly all Americans (96 percent) – even if they are not regular library visitors – agree that libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed. They support our public education and lifelong learning.
There are now more public library buildings in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s – a total of 16,592, including branches.
 Library use continues to rise – public library visits exceed 1.3 billion, and libraries circulate more items than Fed Ex ships – more than 2.1 billion books, CDs, DVDs and more.
 Americans check out on average more than seven books a year.  They spend about $31 for the public library – about the cost of one hardcover book.
 Americans spend about two-and-a-half times as much on salty snacks as they do on public libraries.
(http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/advocacy/advocacyuniversity/toolkit/talkingpoints/libraryuse.cfm)

As the last bullet point above indicates, financial support for libraries is sadly lacking. In New Mexico, we have a bond initiative to support libraries, but the measure requires voter approval every two years. This “book bond” came into being as a way for the voters to supplement the lack of legislative support for libraries throughout the state. In the run-up to the last bond approval, I was called a dirty Marxist for making the case that libraries in the state are under-funded, and desperately in need of the money that the bond represents! While libraries are hardly a socialist enterprise, the return on investment is impressive, if one considers the bullet point above (average checkouts: 7 books per year).

At San Juan College, we serve a terrifically diverse demographic, with widely varied informational and technological needs and expectations. During my short time here (I began work here in 2006), I’ve noticed a shift from non-traditional students, to a younger demographic; students who have just completed high school, and have never known a time without Internet. With ready access to web-based information, and a lifetime of technology skills, what use do younger, tech-savvy students have for libraries? Can the internet serve as a viable substitute for libraries? If one considers the internet to be a library of sorts, one would also have to concede that it is a very poorly organized library, and one that grows by staggering degree every day; portions of the internet are available only at a cost (e.g. – research databases and other subscriptions). Libraries provide resources that assist students in this regard; access to subscription-based research databases is a common feature at US academic libraries, and professional staff (i.e. – reference librarians) that is skilled in assisting users with the navigation of the internet and other complex information media.

Younger students are oftentimes not traditional readers, and some never have owned a book. Many of our youngest students seem not to recognize the value of print formats; they lack familiarity with standard research strategies such as the use of the subject indexes that are commonly found in the back of books. Any reading that these students do is more commonly from an electronic screen – a reality that today’s library ignores at its peril. Our library must also recognize and support the variety of learning styles that exist among our students. Kindles that utilize a text-to-speech function are invaluable for our developmental or dyslexic students. Our library has five Kindles available to borrow; we have recently purchased three Nooks for circulation as well. We have approximately 70,000 volumes in our print collection, but also about 25,000 e-book titles. My point is that we strive to meet the needs of all of our users, and do so using a successful integration of formats; we offer books, magazines, journals, electronic articles, e-books, Kindles, Nooks - successfully, and without incident. To do otherwise is truly to risk obsolescence, particularly among younger library users.  Lacking an adequate array of useful resources, and a well trained staff, a traditional library is little more than a room full of books, in the eyes of our youngest (and future) users – and a dinosaur. Incidentally – we still spend more on print books than just about anything else.

I don’t know what the future of libraries in the US holds. The liquidation of bookstore giant Borders is in the news today. A political solution to the nation’s budget and debt crises is proving elusive. Adequate funding for the nation’s libraries may assume diminished priority over time, but this would be penny wise, but pound foolish; voters are tragically unable or unwilling to recognize the connection between the taxes, and the services such as libraries that many take for granted. Libraries represent an invaluable repository of knowledge, culture and human achievement – and a means for most of our citizens to actualize their own potential. Libraries have always evolved; a decent library is a dynamic thing, but one that cannot afford to stagnate.