What IS the State of America’s Libraries?


My first impression of ALA’s Report was just another rehash of Pew’s survey information. ALA releases 2014 State of America’s Libraries Report is that rehash, but it also masks ALA’s misguided concept for the future of librarianship.

CHICAGO, April 13, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Libraries continue to transform to meet society’s changing needs, and more than 90 percent of the respondents in an independent national survey said that libraries are important to the community.

But school libraries continue to feel the combined pressures of recession-driven financial tightening and federal neglect, according to the survey by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and school libraries in some districts and some states still face elimination or de-professionalization of their programs.

These and other library trends of the past year are detailed in the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2014 State of America’s Libraries report, released today during National Library Week, April 13– 19.

Most of the emphasis here seems to be on the desperate school librarian situation, which deserves as much muscle to correct as ALA can muster. But, after venturing off into la-la-land to discuss banned books, the article concludes with a link to the full report, State of America’s Libraries Report 2014. The Executive Summary states;

Some of the key findings of the national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project were detailed at the 2014 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in Philadelphia in January. These included:

• Ninety-six percent of those surveyed agreed that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading. The same number agreed because libraries provide tech resources and access to materials, and a majority view libraries as leaders in technology.

• While the overall number of visitors to a physical library or bookmobile dropped five percentage points from 2012 to 2013, from 53% to 48%, there was an equally significant increase in the number of users of library websites. Particular increases were noted among African Americans, Hispanics, those age 16 to 29, and those with some college education.

• More than 75% of the survey’s respondents want libraries to play an active role in public life. Seventy-seven percent want libraries to coordinate more closely with local schools in providing resources to children, and the same proportion want free early literacy programs for children. People look to libraries to help fix struggling schools and to help children learn to navigate new technologies and become critical thinkers.

An earlier Pew study, released in May 2013, showed that most parents highly value one resource for their children: libraries.

Hmmm. Sounds familiar. Didn’t I just write a post on Pew’s view of the library world? Sure enough – Pew Research Defines Library Users – Yet Again? – three weeks ago.

The Executive Summary also delves into ALA’s vision of the library’s future. A very disturbing vision that they are borrowing.

The ALA has made transformation a top priority. As libraries continue to transform in 2014, they deepen engagement with their communities in many ways, addressing current social, economic, and environmental issues, often through partnerships with governments and other organizations. Moving forward from being providers of books and information, public libraries now respond to a wide range of ongoing and emerging needs.

This can include helping communities cope with the unexpected. The rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act had many public libraries struggling to keep up with the demand for public computer terminals and with requests for help in using the Healthcare.gov website. And people left homeless by Hurricane Sandy filled libraries in New York and New Jersey, using library computers to complete federal forms and communicating with loved ones using the library’s internet connections.

And through it all, libraries continue to deal with societal issues and sometimes with problems—such as homelessness—that are familiar but nonetheless seem intractable. San Francisco Public Library’s outreach program to homeless users, for example, is staffed by a full-time psychiatric social worker and includes the services of five peer counselors, all of whom were once homeless themselves. The New York Public Library is reaching out to another at-risk group through BridgeUp, an educational and antipoverty program that provides academic and social support to at-risk 8th–12th graders at NYPL branches in underserved neighborhoods.

And sometimes the word “library” stretches the traditional definition of “library.” The Lopez Island (Wash.) Library, offers musical instruments for checkout, and the Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, New York, lends out plots of land on which patrons can learn organic growing practices. (“Anyone can ‘check out’ a plot!” says the library’s website.)

[I will write more on why adopting this "Libraries Transforming Communities" vision borrowed from The Harwood Institute in which libraries become "change-agents" to their community is a very bad idea.]

My urban library director friend recently wrote;

Another serious issue facing not only public libraries, but our profession as a whole, is self-identification. We must continue to understand and truly believe in what we do and why we exist. As I attend conferences, meetings, and workshops, I hear the frustration of the internal struggle with my colleagues in rationalizing their place and purpose within the current model of public library service. I listen to the frustration over feeling as if books and reading have been abandoned by the public in favor of Facebook and social media, or spending time on the computer. I hear their struggles with their desire to provide in-depth reference yet meeting the patrons desire to simply receive a quick answer to that question, or to be signed up for their next session on the computer.

I have been involved, due to my recently published book on strategic planning for the 21st century library, in many discussions on planning and purpose of the mission for the public library. I hear the struggle between the professionals in their own identification of the mission of the free public library. They grasp at answers including encouraging reading, encouraging lifelong learning, creating a community gathering space, enriching lives, and many more. We as a profession must, while respecting the individual community and library needs and differences, establish a clear mission and purpose for the “librarian.” I believe that this is essential to our continued survival in the future. Each time I am asked if Google will be our undoing, I am more certain that we ourselves and our lack of understanding of our mission and purpose in this new society is much more likely to be our downfall. Because, if we were clear about our mission and purpose, the question of whether or not Google will replace librarians would be moot. [Emphasis added.]

That pretty well summarizes what is lacking in this 2014 State of America’s Libraries Report from ALA – any perception from them that librarianship is lacking a clear identity.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “What IS the State of America’s Libraries?

  1. Thanks Steve. I noted some immediate similarities between both reports. We are educational institutions, and working from that premise, we have a tremendous opportunity to address the needs of our communities. I recently attended a wonderful exhibit and symposium at an area museum describing the challenges faced by Asian casino workers as they acclimate to the communities in our part of Connecticut. The exhibit designer placed Otis library as the keystone of a plan for revitalizing the Norwich city center specifically because the library was a trusted resource and a center of community activity. We need not stray too far from our missions to establish our importance and engage our communities.

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