Recently the Pew Research Center released a synopsis of their exhaustive study of American libraries and where they fit in the lives of their communities and patrons. Entitled “7 Surprises about Libraries in our Surveys” it presents conclusions that challenges some of the popular assumptions about libraries, who is using them and the services deemed most essential. A few examples suffice to give a sense of the whole. Contrary to popular belief, older Americans, specifically those over 65 are the group least likely to have visited a library in the last 12 months. That contradicts the popular misconception that our audience-with the exception of the very young- is weighted towards older users. Equally as interesting is that younger Americans (those ages 16-29) are just as likely to be library users as those who are older. While it is reassuring to contemplate the relevance of libraries to a younger audience base, that satisfaction must be balanced by further research exploring why older adults are less inclined to patronize libraries. Otis Library addresses key impediments to the use of the physical library- security, transportation, health, visual and physical impediments and programming.
E-book reading is rising, but only 4% of Americans are E-book only readers. According to Pew, “people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability, but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others.” Physical books will remain an important part of our collections. That does not suggest that library patrons eschew new means of gaining access to information or believe that the current allocation of space to books, primarily in rows of shelves, does not require further consideration. Yet the results are turbid. Some 20% of respondents to the Pew survey said libraries should “definitely” make changes in the ways they arrange their books, including “moving some print books and stacks out of public locations to free up more space for tech centers, reading rooms and cultural events.” Yet in the same survey 36% said libraries should “definitely not” make those changes and 39% said libraries should “maybe” consider moving some books and stacks.
Analysis not assumptions must guide libraries as they seek to meet the needs of their audiences. There is no one model that will suffice and that requires us to be engaged with the community and cognizant of their changing needs.
The future of libraries 2/17/2014
In as much as my e-mails have been sent and/or answered and the snow has been shoveled, this is a brilliant opportunity to provide a summary of recent articles that address the future of libraries. I will provide links in case you’d like to peruse the full article.
The first is a short and wonderfully insightful review of Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s book Libraries and the Enlightenment (Essential Readings in the Philosophy of LIS) dated June 26, 2012, posted by Lane Wilkinson on the Sense and Reference blog. Link: http://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/libraries-and-the-enlightenment-essential-readings-in-the-philosophy-of-lis/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog. (Yes, the book has been ordered!)
There is equal consideration given to the genesis of academic and public libraries and their philosophical antecedents in the Enlightenment, but for the sake of brevity I will focus on the public library aspects. As Bevins argues, and Wilkinson agrees, public libraries developed from the political values of Enlightenment (i.e., equality, education, and other democratic ideals) to the extent that ‘“the belief in the ability of individuals to improve themselves through self-education persists through the history of public libraries”’ (p. 99). Democracy requires an educated and informed citizenry, so libraries were built to educate and inform. This is not an undisputed argument in a library community sensitized to any implication of elitism, exclusivity or didacticism. Referring to a similar argument proffered by Andy Woodworth, (Agnostic Maybe blog) Wilkinson addresses such responses forthrightly, “As you can imagine, more orthodox librarians in the comments jumped all over the suggestion, calling it elitist, snobbish, and condescending. After all, they argued, tastes are subjective, so all books are equally valuable, and it’s elitist and authoritarian to suggest otherwise…librarians should always remain passive, neutral providers. This line of thinking is as stupid as it is cynical, but it’s emblematic of the tension in librarianship between those who view libraries as passive information and entertainment sources and those who want libraries to take on more responsibility for educating their communities.” I am a firm believer in providing access to services and resources that meet the needs of our community, but both Wilkinson in his assessment and Bevins-Tatum in his book reveal a gauntlet that has been dropped before us: “If libraries are to survive the 21st century, we have to decide what role we play in our communities. Are we going to be providers or educators? Providers focus on satisfying patron demands; educators focus on satisfying patron needs. Providers measure gate-counts; educators measure community impact. Providers want patrons to read; educators want them to read well. What Bivens-Tatum offers is a reminder that libraries aren’t just there to satisfy their communities…they are there to improve them, to educate them, to enlighten them.” We are facing a similar dichotomy in planning our future: provider or educator? Despite good intentions there a history of noblesse oblige connected to libraries and their services-Deacon Otis-the eponymous founder of our library- in his modest way, Andrew Carnegie in grand fashion-which I don’t think we wish to emulate. Nonetheless, our commitment to education is integral to our mission. Perhaps the best situation is one in which we carefully assess community need and our mission and resources and determine where the compatibilities lie. We are and should be a center of community activity and that will include activities that require door and program counts, attention to community wishes as well as community needs. I believe we can satisfy our mission without being condescending or didactic or conversely, being passive, neutral providers. We will have to make conscious determines as we plan and weigh whether we are tipping too far in one direction.
This summer Otis Library extended its community presence by serving as a host site for the Norwich Food Services Summer Delivery Program. Lunch was offered free to anyone 18 and under who comes to one of the sites. Meals were available Monday through Thursday following our “Dig into Reading” summer reading program, which ensured an ample audience. Through August 16, 596 meals were provided to young community residents. The reading program was equally well received, with 500 participants enrolled.
As has been our practice for the last 3 years, during August we conducted our annual summer survey of library members. The results are now being collated for further analysis. To date, between on site and electronic formats over 260 individuals have responded and provided us with essential information on library services. Our focus this year is the library’s web site, specifically the ways in which our constituents use it and what types of information they are looking for. The insights provided will help us adjust the contents to best meet the needs and preferences of our members.
What these activities have in common is their grounding in our core values, which are exemplified by communications, flexibility, innovation and customer centeredness. The extension of our services by acting as a lunch site meets a demonstrable community need while also encouraging young residents to participate in summer reading, an important extension of school based learning. The annual survey is essential to ensuring that our members are heard and their suggestions and reactions to the library available for analysis. In an environment where change is nearly constant and reaction times short adding and assessing services never really stops. These are just two examples of the library’s vigilance and responsiveness.
I have frequently described the changing role of the Otis Library as we evolve to meet community needs. The core truth of the conviction, that libraries are not “cookie cutter” institutions based on an immutable, one design fits all dictum, is reflected in a photo-essay entitled “Public Library: An American Commons”. http://places.designobserver.com/feature/public-library-an-american-commons/26228/. Of particular resonance is the following observation, a holistic appreciation of the multiplicity of purposes libraries serve:
“The modern American public library is reading room, book lender, video rental outlet, internet cafe, town hall, concert venue, youth activity center, research archive, history museum, art gallery, homeless day shelter, office suite, coffeeshop, seniors’ clubhouse and romantic hideaway rolled into one.  In small towns of the American West, it is also the post office and the backdrop of the local gun range.”
What can never be compromised are the educational underpinnings of a public library; that is the salient reason for Otis being a not for profit institution. The author’s comments also speak to the essential part the library as a physical space plays. While we will search for opportunities that allow library services to go to constituents, the importance of the physical library remains undiminished. Our mission continues to include a pledge to maintain “a safe and welcoming environment”, a physical presence that beckons those looking for educational resources, enlightenment, a niche for reflection, access to communications and a sense of community.
Otis Library was founded in 1851 and serves as the public library for the city of Norwich Connecticut. Its current structure opened in April of 2007. An association library, We have more than 42,000 card holders and circulate between 12,000 and 16,000 items each month. Our library employs 35 people and a large coterie of volunteers. Our newly renovated facility is more than 40,000 square feet. We are proud of the many different areas we have for community events, programs and meetings. It is our mission to provide free and open access to information, ideas and services, anticipating our community’s personal, educational and professional needs. Otis Library enriches our region by maintaining a safe and welcoming environment and by offering resources that promote life-long learning.While it serves as the preeminent information provider for a large and diverse population, Otis is equally important as a space that encourages public engagement and dialogue, and civil discourse. As a public forum, the library provides opportunities for the exchange and germination of new ideas. Otis Library is a meeting place, a vehicle for personal enrichment, and a place to read and reflect. It remains one of the few public spaces where all segments of the community find themselves in proximity to each other and on common ground.
Part of the planning for the future of Otis library involves assessing the services we provide, including the technologies. This is especially important in a time of complex transition from the unquestioned dominance of print to one where the common wisdom holds that digital formats will predominate. Some of that has been questioned recently by the Pew Foundation, but that seems less a debate over whether digital formats will prevail than a reflection of the uncertainty surrounding what libraries will offer for services and in what containers information will be delivered. Why does the delivery system matter? That depends on our definition of literacy. Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain compares our current situation to the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, a time when questions about literacy were raised by Socrates and mirror concerns equally resonant in the protean environment of the early 21st century. As she eloquently observes, the questions raised more than two millennia ago by Socrates about literacy in the context of the transition from an oral society to a literate one are similar to her own concerns about the immersion of our children in a digital world: “Like the ancient Greeks we are embarked on a powerfully important transition-in our case from a written culture to one that is more digital and visual.”
Socrates felt passionately that written words posed serious risks to society, and posited 3 critical objections that deserve thoughtful consideration as we examine our own intellectual transition to new modes of acquiring information. One in particular evokes the Wolf’s concerns. Socrates embraced the probative value of orality, specifically as a dynamic means of expression, “full of meanings, sounds, rhythms, ready to be uncovered through examination and dialogue.” He assessed written words as mute, immutable, incapable of riposte. This inflexibility of written words doomed the dialogic process Socrates saw as the heart of education.
With the benefit of 2 millennia of evidence Socrates misgivings were demonstrably unwarranted. The process of reflection, writing, revision and committing ones thoughts to paper creates an inner dialectic similar to that he espoused and valued so highly. The dialogue remains, albeit in a modified form.
Perhaps it is too early to judge the efficacy of communications often circumscribed by a few hundred characters. There is no sin in brevity or glory in prolixity. I do like Wolf’s closing comment on this matter: “whether [the essence of dialogue] are being developed in ways that sufficiently reflect the true, critical examination of thought would be for Socrates and for us the essential question.”
My purpose is not to deny the need for or usefulness of digital formats vs. analog. However, Socrates fears and Wolf’s open ended speculation regarding the “powerfully important transition” described above are part of the equation we must contemplate as we plan and implement our vision of a responsive, responsible and sustainable 21st century library. Our planning requires a carefully framed and forthright dialogue, featuring decisions based on examination, discussion, and understanding rather than the allure of new formats and platforms.