Review of Public Library Quarterly – S. Scholl
A review of the eight most recent issues of Public Library Quarterly revealed an interesting, if not perplexing, paradigm; public libraries and their services are being utilized with increasing frequency while funding continues to be reduced. While many topics are covered over a two year span, public library usage and budget issues are the central focus throughout the PLQ articles. However, other relevant topics emerge concurrently. The concepts of digital divide, digital literacy, and digital inclusion become integral in not only resisting budget reductions but increasing funding for public libraries. Finally, examples are provided and policy recommendations are given that demonstrate and support the continued need for public libraries.
In order to understand the current state of the U.S. public library system, the global economy is first addressed. The United States is currently in what has been labeled a Great Recession with the unemployment rate hovering anywhere between 8 and 10 percent. In the history of the U.S., citizens have relied upon the local public library for support during difficult economic times (James 1985). With the economy in a downturn, many people that haven’t faced financial difficulties are turning to their public libraries for free entertainment, internet access, and professional guidance in finding employment and government resources. This is in addition to many impoverished and lower SES residents that utilize their public library because it is their only means of internet access. According to the Public Library Funding and Technology Access studies (PLFTAS), in 2012, 62.1% of libraries reported that they are the only provider of free public computer and internet access in their communities (Jaeger 2011).This has resulted in a dramatic increase in public library usage. Most libraries have seen 25 percent increases in overall usage with some libraries reporting up to a 500 percent increase (Sigler et al. 2012).
It is starkly clear then why public libraries’ budgets should be increased to accommodate these increases in usage. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. According to The 2012 State of America’s Libraries as well as data gathered from state library agencies, from 2010-2012 every state’s funding was reduced by nearly half (American Library Association 2012). Massive budget cuts lead to a reduction in trained staff to assist users and provide IT support, less computer work stations, and reduced opening hours. These are the obvious and tangible consequences. However, during the reading it becomes apparent that public libraries can stretch resources only so far before less transparent consequences arise.
The term digital divide is used throughout multiple articles and is intricately connected to many of the topics covered in the Public Library Quarterly. Digital divide implies the gap for whom Internet access is readily available and those for whom it is not (Jaegar et al. 2012). Causes for this can be a multitude of reasons ranging from socioeconomic status and education to geography and age. As technology continues to advance at a rapid rate, this digital divide is expanding. Yet, simply having Internet access isn’t sufficient for most of these targeted populations. They must be able to competently utilize their resources at hand which is referred to as digital literacy (Jaegar et al. 2012). The majority of libraries offer computer skill classes, internet classes, web searching classes, software, as well as a growing number of social media classes. This is a major reason behind the increase in library usage. By offering both internet access and professional instruction, libraries are situated at the crossroads of digital inclusion.
The term digital inclusion is used to encompass narrowing the digital divide and increasing digital literacy. A recent study identified the necessary components for successful digital inclusion as adequate funding for technology, sufficient physical and technological infrastructure to support the technology, adequate bandwidth and sufficient training in using the technology (Jaegar et al. 2012). While there already have been attempts at improving digital inclusion and closing the digital divide, it does not seem to have been sufficient.
Reducing public library budgets is clearly not the solution if improving the economy and digital inclusion are the goals. A study of the economic value of the Free Library of Philadelphia is a great representation of the potential benefit that can be derived from public libraries. The Penn Fels Institute of Government published findings that show 8,630 small business owners could not have started, grown, or improved their business without the library, assistance estimated at $4 million (Smith 2011 ). Examples such as this lead many to recommend public libraries be funded more during economic recessions as well as treated as part of the larger economic development and employment infrastructure (Taylor et al. 2012).
While the Public Library Quarterly gives insight towards the many challenges facing the public library system today, it also provides a look at just how important they are to America’s development both economically and socially. Public libraries are connected in so many ways to the community it seems ludicrous to believe they will become extinct as some do. What is clear is the library’s role in serving those in need, which state funding has decided to neglect in the current economy.
American Library Association (ALA). (2012) The 2012 state of America’s libraries: A report from the American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/news/mediapresscenter/americaslibraries/soal2012
Jaeger, P. T. (2011) Disability and the Internet: Confronting a digital divide. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
James, S.E. (1985) “The relationship between local economic conditions and the use of public libraries.” Library Quarterly 55: 255-72
Natalie Greene Taylor, Paul T. Jaeger, Abigail J. McDermott, Christie M. Kodama & John Carlo Bertot (2012) Public Libraries in the New Economy: Twenty-First-Century Skills, the Internet, and Community Needs, Public Library Quarterly, 31:3, 191-219, DOI: 10.1080/01616846.2012.707106
Paul T. Jaeger, John Carlo Bertot, Kim M. Thompson, Sarah M. Katz & Elizabeth J. DeCoster (2012) The Intersection of Public Policy and Public Access: Digital Divides, Digital Literacy, Digital Inclusion, and Public Libraries, Public Library Quarterly, 31:1, 1-20, DOI: 10.1080/01616846.2012.654728
Smith, Duncan (2011) “Books: An Essential Part of Essential Libraries”, Public Library Quarterly, 30:4, 257-269, DOI: 10.1080/01616846.2011.625564