Cameron’s Journal Review
The Future of Public Libraries
At the turn of the 20th Century, the rise of the automobile is largely blamed for the decline of the once-profitable buggy whip industry. After reviewing the most recent two years of Public Library Quarterly, it can be argued that as the 21st Century gets under way the rise of modern communication and information technology presents the same threat to the public library, but unlike in the case of the buggy whip, it also presents an opportunity for libraries and librarians willing to evolve and embrace the change.
With the increased use of the Internet to find jobs, apply for government aid, get help with homework, access scholarly articles and journals, purchase consumer goods, and download music and video, as well as the introduction of e-readers and proliferation of e-mail, the role of librarians as leaders in technology education needs to be re-assessed. The abundance of easily accessible resources available to the public online and the manner in which technology is becoming ever more important to intellectually, economically, and socially engage in today’s society provides a hole for libraries to fill.
While students on a college campus are awash in technology and may have difficulty imagining life without it, this is not the case for everyone. For many Americans, lack of computer skills or access to technology creates a speed bump for the country “The Intersection of Public Policy and Public Access” referred to as a “digital divide.”
“Although some believe the United States is truly a digital nation, and that every individual in our society can easily locate vital governmental and social services or find employment information via the internet efficiently and without assistance, realistically this is not the case”(Natalie Greene Taylor). As of 2012, only 60 percent of American adults use broadband connections in their homes (Rainie 2012). This means about 125 million people who do not have such access. Furthermore, a survey by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration shows 30 percent of people in the United States do not use the internet anywhere (The National Telecommunications and Information Administration 2010).
The reasons for this divide are numerous. Those who have a low level of education or a low paying occupation, including many who are unemployed or underemployed in today’s economy, cannot afford the luxury of a home computer or internet access in their residence. Additionally, depending on where some people live, broadband service or even dial-up Internet access may not be available.
The digital divide in North America could potentially create a system of technological haves and have-nots, but this is also where public libraries can step in and fill the void. Over 99 percent of public libraries offer Internet access, including 64.5 percent of public libraries that are the only provider of free public computer and internet in local communities. Of these libraries, 85.7 percent offer Wi-Fi access (The Intersection of Public Policy and Public Access vol. 31 issue 1 pg. 10). As well as providing the hardware, libraries also provide many activities to assist their patrons in using these informational sources with classes for beginners to advanced users. Although there may not be any single solution to closing the broadband gap, increasing digital literacy skills among non-users is key contribution to opening up their minds to the digital age (NTIA 2010).
To meet this aim, public libraries and librarians need to embrace the role of teacher and technology enabler rather than observer. There are over 16,672 public libraries in the United States (Rural Public Libraries and Community Economic Development vol. 31 issue 3 pg. 3), many of which provide basic introductory courses in computer and Internet skills taught by the library staff. Although this is a good start, libraries need to provide more than just basic level classes in order to advance American knowledge of technology. Librarians need to focus more on outreach to both their customers and non-customers by promoting activities and teaching additional courses that spark their interests. Public libraries hold the materials but need to start implementing ways in which to turn America into a technology advanced nation. Information about library resources is not reaching all potential users in their communities and computer education is still largely absent in almost 40 percent of America. Although public libraries are helping close the digital divide by providing the computers and the internet access needed for lifelong learning, and providing coaching to be able to use them to obtain basic information, libraries need to take on teaching and leadership roles to aid America in the digital age.
One niche group to which libraries could reach out is older Americans. While local public libraries can provide the access to a computer, many of the later generations do not even know how to turn a computer on. Teaching these ultra-basic skills in a comfortable environment presents an opportunity.
“The library is often the best equipped institution to assist in the revitalization of the local economy and in preparing a community to assume a more productive role in the new information based economy” (Rural Public Libraries and Community Economic Development vol. 31 issue 3 pg. 5), but “most libraries have programs geared towards children, youth, and adult populations. Yet library services, collections, and a physical building environment organized especially for older adults are not found nearly as frequently” (Older Adults and the Public Library vol. 32 issue 3 pg. 3). In the past, library services for older adults have been limited to selections of large print books or outreach programs with nursing homes and homebound individuals. What libraries need to do to plan for the growing population of Americans over 65 is to change their library to become a focal point for information services to older adults. They need to make sure that the special needs and interests of the older adults are reflected in their library programs and services. Libraries need to start collecting data on the older population and start incorporating it into their planning and budgeting. For librarians to take on a teaching role in the society means that they can’t leave any students out of the picture.
There are many examples throughout the United States of public libraries adapting to recent changes to move forward, enlighten, and better serve their communities in this digital age. One example is the Washington, D.C. Public Library that has introduced an online homework help webpage that is open from the hours of 4 p.m. to midnight. The library has also incorporated a computer center which offers courses in computer skills, typing tutorials, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Enhanced Business Information Center offers business resources, business counseling and assessment, monthly business development workshops, business training, and resume writing workshops (Public Libraries in the New Economy vol. 31 issue 3 pg. 15).
Similarly, the Los Angeles Public Library offers 117 classes related to computers. Classes can include introduction to the internet, online resume writing, and computer comfort. Continuing training can be done through the “Adult Literacy Program” that offers free one-on-one adult tutoring twice a week. There is also a “Language of Money” workshop series which includes classes held in both Spanish and English and teaches basic financial skills (Public Libraries in the New Economy vol. 31 issue 3 pg. 15).
A third example is the Enoch Pratt Free Library located in Baltimore, Maryland which offers a wide variety of technology, computer skill, job seeking, and non-profit fundraising and managing classes. You can also visit their business center for advice about buying a car or navigating the college admission process (Public Libraries in the New Economy vol. 31 issue 3 pg. 15). Overall, there are a wide variety of ways in which the United States has already begun the constant “road repair” that is needed to suit everyday communities in the new digital age.
If today’s librarians are not moving their libraries towards the future every day, they risk falling farther, and farther behind. Fortunately, the future looks bright. Public libraries are faring exceptionally well “fielding tens of millions more in-person and online visits each year than before the economic downturn began, most libraries have observed an approximate 25 percent increase in overall usage, but some have had to handle up to a 500 percent increase in usage” (Sigler). The 2010 Opportunity for All study estimated that 30 million people had used library computers and internet access to search for employment, with 3.7 million people actually being hired for a position they applied for through the library computers (Becker). Public libraries continue to increase the amount of free Wi-Fi available in the United States, and on average there were 16 work stations in each library in 2012 (Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2012). Local libraries have increased the availability of the number of databases, the number of E-books and audio content for checkout. Overall, 60.2 percent of libraries reported increase use of their computers, including a 74.1 increase in the use of free Wi-Fi, and a 58.2 percent increase in the use of other electronic resources.
Without change it has been predicted by the “Extinction Timeline” that libraries as we know them could be obsolete within the next 23 years or even as soon as 2019. The lesson for libraries should be clear. As Lester Thurow said, “Fortune favors the bold… Those who leap sometimes lose, but those who do not leap always lose.”