Vol. 6 / No. 4 / Spring 2012  

Today's Public Libraries: Public Places of Excellence, Education and Innovation

by Daniel Akst

In our digital age, public libraries are not only thriving but serving new purposes and new populations.

Knowledge was hard to come by in the 19th century, when Andrew Carnegie began funding libraries all over America. People didn’t have much money, schooling was limited, and leisure for learning was scant.

Today, of course, things are different. The average American is awash in information, more and more of it pouring from the bottomless cornucopia of the Internet, that life-changing simulacrum of the universal library scholars and science fiction writers fantasized about for so long. As almost everyone knows by now, it’s vast, ubiquitous and always available.

The main section of the Anythink Brighton (Colorado) library is seen though multicolored glass panels in the children’s area. The building is the first “carbon neutral” library in the U.S.

Yet in the first decade of the 21st century, as the Internet was reaching into almost every arena of American life, libraries were bustling. Library visits per capita rose by 24 percent. Circulation was up by about the same. Nor are physical libraries about to disappear any time soon, at least judging by the evidence literally on the ground. On the contrary, not only has the number of libraries grown, but since 1990 this country has witnessed a remarkable renaissance in library construction. Many communities have built modern new library facilities, some of them designed by the likes of Michael Graves, and Rem Koolhaas and Moshe Safdie. Other libraries, such as the White Tank Branch Library in Arizona have become leaders in using “green technology”; the Anythink Brighton Library in Colorado is the first carbon-positive library in the U.S. and is actually able to contribute energy to the local power grid.

Despite the Internet, it seems, libraries persist—and even thrive. Given the wealth of information and reading material at our fingertips at all times, it’s fair to ask: why should that be? Why do people still want—and need—public libraries? There are many reasons, but the most important have to do with a couple of ideas that might sound archaic to modern ears, perhaps because in reality what they are is enduring.

The first is the notion of place, a thing the Internet was supposed to have obliterated. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the digital future: place kept mattering. It turns out that people often need somewhere to go, especially people who aren’t affluent enough to live in big houses. People with large families might need some peace and quiet, or a change of venue for study that is removed from the television and the refrigerator. People who live alone—and their ranks are increasing daily—might just want a little company while they read. An ideal place for all these folks should be safe, convenient and most of all public—a place where you don’t have to buy anything yet can stay as long as you like. Libraries are the very definition of such locales, and our unending need for this place that isn’t home, work or café accounts for a lot of their persistence. Library patrons themselves will tell you that. After she was laid off by Home Depot, Shamika Miller visited the public library in Tracy, California, almost every day during 2008 to look for work. As she told the Wall Street Journal, “There’s something about the library that helps you think.”

The second reason libraries persist is the notion of improvement, something that has been an article of faith among librarians and their civic backers for as long as there have been libraries in this country. We Americans were early proponents of universal education and individual initiative, and we long ago recognized the importance of giving people a chance to make their lives better by gaining knowledge and cultivating their minds—in other words, improving themselves both materially and intellectually. It’s an idea redolent of Ben Franklin and Samuel Smiles, Horatio Alger and even Dale Carnegie.

We’re supposed to know better, somehow, today. The idea of progress isn’t so universal any more. But if you think self-improvement is dead, or is only the kind of thing people do at the gym nowadays, you need to visit a public library or two—particularly in a neighborhood full of new Americans. They need a place to go where they can pursue the mission of improvement, which after all is what made them come to this country to begin with.

I live part of every week in New York’s borough of Queens, in the neighborhood of Flushing, and I defy anyone to visit the big public library there, a short walk from the end of the number 7 subway line, without coming away a little misty-eyed at the scene inside. Flushing has a vibrant Asian population, and if you visit almost anytime after school you’ll find the place packed with Asian-American kids hitting the books. These young people have computers, cell phones—a full complement of technology. But they also have books. And they’re not fooling around. This is a big, multi-story building, and when I last stopped in, on a Saturday afternoon, there was nary an empty seat in the house.

Librarians no longer do a lot of shushing, a young staff member at the information desk told me, and so the library offers a quiet room for those bent on intensive concentration. But as I walked among the tables in the rest of the facility, you could hardly tell the whole place wasn’t a quiet room. There were kids everywhere, yet little noise. Everyone was immersed in study. And they had chosen to study in the library.

Public libraries were my introduction to the world of ideas, and to the possibility of life as a writer, so nothing could be more thrilling than seeing all these aspiring young scholars hard at work. What a useful corrective to the drumbeat of pessimism that besets us from the media.

"Librarians have more training nowadays, not just in using computers but in communicating with patrons. And they are using the tools of the digital revolution the very ones that were supposed to make librarians obsolete—to do a better job for the public."

Yet there is more to this library than eager students—a great deal more. There is a monthly support group—conducted in Mandarin—for families struggling to care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. There are courses in Microsoft Word for Spanish speakers. There are youth-oriented programs, such as a teen Jeopardy challenge (and judging from what I saw in the library, that competition will be tough). A weekend performance combining Congolese dance with tap and urban fusion was on the agenda in the auditorium. Other branches of the sprawling Queens Library system offer programs for just about everyone, from toddlers to job-seekers to retirees, in just about every conceivable language—including, of course, programs aimed at new Americans and, since this is New York, programs on the rights and obligations of tenants.

Visiting the Flushing library helped me realize that libraries persist because the marketplace, with all its many splendors, provides no good alternative to these comforting institutions where you can sit and think without a penny in your pocket. Libraries also persist because the idea of improvement persists—and because libraries continue to meet the needs of their patrons, perhaps even better than they have in the past. Library layouts have been evolving in recent years to accommodate different groups of patrons—just as they did years ago, to accommodate children. Librarians also have more training nowadays, not just in using computers but in communicating with patrons. And they are using the tools of the digital revolution—the very ones that were supposed to make librarians obsolete—to do a better job for the public, for example by promoting community discussions online, offering help on the Web and using Twitter to keep patrons informed.

In New York City, in Chicago, in Los Angeles and so many other places that are magnets for immigrants, libraries provide reading material in a host of tongues, not to mention instruction in the English language and workshops on how to become a citizen. They still provide books, of course, but they also provide Internet access for those who lack a connection, a computer or even a home. In smaller communities, they remain cherished civic and cultural spaces, anchoring sometimes tattered main streets and serving as a destination for children after school and the elderly after a lifetime of work. This idea of improvement—of helping people to make their lives better through knowledge, just as Andrew Carnegie sought to do through his vast international library-building program—is what ties together all the things libraries do today.

Library patrons participate in a seminar about downloading digital books to their mobile devices for free at the Reston, Virginia branch library.

And during hard times, libraries do a pretty wide range of things. Several public libraries, following the lead of San Francisco’s Main Branch, have hired social workers, for instance, to help them deal with the homeless, many of whom depend on the nearest public library for everything from Internet access to daily ablutions. The Greensboro, N.C. public library started providing haircuts and blood pressure screenings to these needy visitors. In Gainesville, Fla., the Alachua County Library District has coped with declining in-person access to government services by forming the Library Partnership, a facility containing both a library and various community services. By this means the library has made itself into a gateway for local residents seeking health and legal services, rent and utility subsidies, counseling and tax help, not to mention book and clothing drives and weekend food for kids nourished by the food lunch program during the week. Like so many libraries, the one in Gainesville goes far beyond providing food for thought.

At the Columbus, Ohio Metropolitan Library, meanwhile, job centers have opened at all 21 branches to help patrons cope with the recession through resume instruction and the like. The library also brought in experts in employment, entrepreneurship and business development. In 2010 alone the program helped 44,000 people. Its web site offers links to job sites, and for younger patrons, there’s homework help at every branch. At the Hilltop branch, which offers classes in English as a second language and “going beyond Google” in using the Internet, among other services, there was a special incentive for student performance: Sarah Wright, who runs the Hilltop homework center, set up the “A Meter” to track the number of top grades students got on assignments and tests. Library staffers agreed to do some outrageous stuff when the meter hit various benchmarks—including dressing up like Lady Gaga or taking pies in the face from kids, who’ve had to study in order to earn the right to throw them.

Always useful, public libraries are an invaluable haven in hard times. Predictably, they were thronged as a result of the Great Recession. Library visits hit 1.59 billion in 2009, an all-time record. Many patrons were drawn to free Internet access, often for job-hunting, and then discovered what a great deal the library is for all sorts of diversion and enlightenment. Some unemployed patrons reported going to the library daily as a kind of office. Cash-strapped libraries found that career-oriented books flew off the shelves and Internet-connected computers were oversubscribed—as were popular titles such as Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. At the Randolph County Public Library in Asheboro, N.C., a near-stampede of new patrons driven to the library by hard times wore out the carpet. Recessions in 1987 and 2001 saw a similar upswing in library patronage. Despite cutbacks in funding—and the need to become career counselors and even consolers of jobless patrons, harried librarians coped.

The dedication of librarians all across this land is one reason that Carnegie Corporation, in conjunction with The New York Times and the American Library Association, bestows the “I Love My Librarian Award” to 10 librarians each year who are nominated and selected for service to their communities, schools and campuses.* Commenting on the 2011 winners, Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian said, “Libraries are the treasure house of civilization. Librarians are our guides to this treasure house. With their help, we can translate the overwhelming flood of information generated by our hectic, complex world into true knowledge and understanding.”

A citizenship class at the East Elmhurst Branch of the Queens, New York public library.

The idea that public institutions can help us improve our lives has fallen into disrepute in some quarters. Critics of government programs point to unintended consequences and mounting deficits. The financial crisis of 2007-08 has taken its toll on cultural institutions across the board. Funding for public colleges and universities has plunged, newspapers have shrunk or in some cases vanished thanks to a radical reduction in advertising revenue, and despite strong public support for libraries, their budgets have been mauled. As state and local governments have tightened their belts, libraries have been forced to curtail hours and services during an economic downturn that left millions of Americans less able to afford books and more in need of job-training guidance and other employment-related help.

Just when Americans needed libraries most, in other words, services were slashed. Library Journal’s annual budget survey, published in January, painted a grim picture. “Most libraries have still not recovered from the massive cuts inflicted since the financial crisis of 2008,” the magazine reported, “and when this depressed starting point meets with the rapid evaporation of state aid and the inexorable rise of expenses, then the numbers often translate to stressed staffs, fewer materials, and reduced service hours.”

Big city libraries have been hit hardest. Libraries serving a population of one million or more reported that staffing was cut by a third in the preceding year—a brutal reduction. Staffing was cut by a fifth in communities of 500,000 to 999,999. San Jose has built four new branch libraries that it can’t afford to open. Smaller library systems have fared less badly, but even there, harried librarians must juggle an ever-growing workload, with predictable effects on morale. Donna Howell, the director of the Mountain Regional Library System in Georgia, told the magazine, “Library use is up about 25 percent since 2009 with about the same number of staff—everyone is doing more and getting paid less.”

To compensate, libraries are working hard to become more efficient. But they’re also looking for new sources of revenue, some of which sound as if they might change the free and egalitarian nature of these places. “It was from my own early experience,” wrote Andrew Carnegie in his autobiography, “that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution.”

The whole point, in fact, was to give the have-nots a chance to improve their lot through learning. Yet to generate revenue, some libraries are offering patrons first dibs on new releases or flexible due dates—for a fee. In Hayward, California, the library offers patrons a menu of plans reminiscent of Netflix. For $2.99 a month, library users get to check out three items at a time and keep them as long as they like, with no due dates. Pay $8.99 per month and you get up to 10 items at a time on the same no-fines principle. If another patron wants to use an item checked out under the “Fines Free” program, the library says it will buy another. Other libraries are selling sponsorships to businesses to keep the doors open, or inviting for-profit test-prep companies to give classes. Some libraries go even further, outsourcing operations to a for-profit library company that markets its ability to run library operations for less.

These measures aren’t necessarily so bad, and the motivation is understandable, given that library funding from public sources has been cut sharply. But these efforts could undermine the precious idea of a library as an egalitarian public institution where money doesn’t matter and buys no extra privileges. Public libraries are different from subscription libraries. They are publicly run, even if they’re operated by a not-for-profit association, as many are, and they have a universal purpose, part of which is to promote democracy through access to knowledge. The public, correctly, perceives them as equal-access educational institutions. Library taxes enjoy overwhelming public support, too. And aside perhaps from firefighters, few public servants are more popular than librarians, who must now work harder than ever to cope with greater demand and diminished resources while trying to decide what kinds of compromises they should make to keep their cherished institutions afloat.

In New York City, in Chicago, in Los Angeles and so many other places that are magnets for immigrants, libraries provide reading material in a host of tongues, not to mention instruction in the English language and workshops on how to become a citizen.

When libraries close, the formerly employed librarians suffer, of course, but so do the patrons. Thanks to budget cutting, moreover, libraries aren’t open as much as they used to be. Overall, in 2008, libraries were open just shy of 60 hours a week on average. In 2011 they were down to just 49 hours. That hurts, because as much as anything else, libraries really are places to go—something especially evident in crowded immigrant neighborhoods such as Flushing.

Yet with the digital revolution well under way, it’s worth asking at this juncture whether America’s roughly 16,700 bricks-and-mortar public libraries have a future. Books and other textual matter are fast abandoning ink and paper in favor of electronic storage, distribution and consumption. You may love the feel of a book in your hand, but the future of books is in all likelihood digital. And that raises questions about libraries. Will they merely serve as repositories and gatekeepers for human knowledge encoded in ones and zeroes? Will there be any need for the buildings we now think of when someone mentions “library?” Can they function if they cease to be primarily dispensers of books?

Since libraries serve an important role as our collective memory, it’s only sensible that we turn to history for some answers. And what the record shows is that libraries have always struggled with the problem of purpose—and they were never intended to be mere dispensers of books. The publicly supported libraries that we know today trace their roots back to the middle of the 19th century, when they sprang up as extensions of the relatively new public primary schools. They were intended, in other words, as both educational and civic institutions, offering a way for grown-ups to educate themselves at a time when not many attended secondary school.

Almost from the outset, there was tension between the idealism of librarians, who saw their role as one of public uplift, and the desires of patrons, who wanted free access to popular fiction. Some librarians took comfort in the notion that such readers, sucked in by such light reading, would advance to more enlightening works, and no doubt some did. But librarians had little choice but to supply it, since accepting public support meant bowing, at least to some extent, to public tastes.

The spread of public support for libraries was a crucial development in which Andrew Carnegie played a major role. Beginning in 1886, Carnegie (and later, Carnegie Corporation of New York) spent $56 million to create 1,681 public libraries in nearly as many U.S. communities, plus 828 more elsewhere in the world. In order to get Carnegie funding, communities had to agree to spend on annual maintenance 10 percent of the initial cost of the library. This meant a tax, one people were willing to pay, but one that invested them in the library whether they used it or not. Libraries became, more than ever before, truly public institutions.

This in turn broadened their purpose. For example, they began not just admitting children, but creating special departments for them. The public at large wanted entertainment as much as enlightenment, yet the democratization of the library also provided an opening for librarians to go well beyond handing out the latest literary love story. Reference departments, for example, were created in the 1890s, putting trained librarians and library resources at the disposal of the citizenry.

How libraries will fit into the future of books remains unclear…but given public expectations and the important role libraries already play, it’s a good bet they’ll be involved, whatever the future holds.

Infused with missionary zeal, librarians in the early 20th century realized that libraries could be important cultural institutions, especially in towns and cities where culture was otherwise scarce. Carnegie libraries, for instance, were often the biggest and most important public buildings around, and many contained meeting rooms that made it easy for them to hold classes, lectures, concerts and exhibitions. Many libraries in out-of-the-way places became the center of social life as well as a crucial entry point for local residents to access culture and the arts—roles that persist to this day in small town libraries across America.

Inevitably, libraries tried adult education, spurred in part by a 1938 study (funded by Carnegie Corporation) called The Public Library—a People’s University. These efforts were never very successful; for one thing, community colleges offered all kinds of adult learning opportunities, and for another, most library patrons weren’t interested in signing up for classroom education. In the 1960s and 1970s, libraries conducted aggressive outreach programs to extend their services beyond their often middle-class clientele. Some libraries also struggled to reinvent themselves for the dawning computer age—as perhaps they are still doing.

Yet even with the Internet at their fingertips, Americans still need—and want—their public libraries, even if only as a place to access the Internet. Most of us, though, want and expect much more from our libraries, and that’s reflected in every measure of public attitudes toward them. Consider that homes near libraries sell for higher prices. Two-thirds of American adults say they visit a library at least once annually. Last year voters approved a remarkable 87 percent of library operating ballot measures, suggesting that taxpayers overwhelmingly believe they are getting their money’s worth from these venerable and much-loved institutions.

Sign at the reference desk of the Brookline, Massachusetts public library

So for now at least, the American people want their libraries. The question then is, what will be the role of the library in the digital tomorrow? Susan Hildreth, a former top librarian in Seattle and for the state of California who is now director of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, has thought about these issues and offers a sensible vision for what’s ahead. “I see three big goals for libraries,” she writes. “Provide engaging learning experiences, become community anchors, and provide access to content even as the devices for accessing that content change rapidly.”

As we’ve seen, libraries are already working hard on providing engaged learning, and have been doing so for decades. As to their role as community anchors, well, that goes back more than a century. Which leaves us with the matter of access to the materials of culture. In the popular mind the best known mission of the public library, of course, is lending books, to say nothing of videos and other material—all the wonderful stuff reductively known nowadays as “content.” And public libraries are well on the road to lending that content in digital form, which will surely be the main form in which it is consumed a decade or two from now. OverDrive, a leading distributor of eBooks for libraries, reported that in 2011 users checked out more than 35 million digital titles, while 17 million titles were put on hold.

Much remains unsettled in this brave new world; theoretically, after all, a single library owning a single digital copy of every book could lend them all simultaneously to every library patron anywhere in the world. Of course, this would be the end of books sales as we know them—and might well strangle off literary production, since writers would have no way to get paid for their work. Right now libraries usually are only permitted to lend an eBook to one user at a time, and some publishers place restrictions on how many times a given eBook can be loaned out. The digital revolution is rattling the entire publishing ecosystem, wiping out bookstores and threatening publisher profit margins. How libraries will fit into the future of books remains unclear. But given public expectations and the important role libraries already play—accounting for something like 10 percent of print-book sales, for example—it’s a good bet they’ll be involved, whatever the future holds.

Libraries have real challenges ahead in balancing the needs of traditional readers against the many other cultural and civic functions that libraries can fulfill. But they also have advantages: as popular books in digital format have grown more affordable, and virtually the entire library of cinema is available for streaming at minimal cost, libraries can begin to free themselves from the role of providing entertainment already amply supplied by the marketplace—a role librarians have long been uneasy about.

Instead, librarians can focus on their unique capabilities as repositories, organizers and guides to knowledge. They can provide a focal point for their communities, as well as a necessary refuge. And they can carry forward the faith in improvement that has sustained them all along. By upholding their great tradition of public service, libraries will continue to win public support—and, it is hoped, public dollars. It’s a great bargain for society, and one likely to keep libraries in business long into the digital future. ■

Daniel Akst is an author, journalist and former trustee and treasurer of the one-room Tivoli Free Library, which anchors its tiny community in New York’s Hudson Valley. He’s written on the subject of libraries twice before for the Carnegie Reporter over the years, exploring the difficulty future generations may have in deciphering our digital texts and the shape library lending may someday take when most of it occurs electronically. He is the author of two novels and two nonfiction books found in many libraries, and his articles and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Wilson Quarterly and many other publications. He is a columnist and editorial writer for Newsday.

* Carnegie Corporation does not have a specific program focused on supporting libraries in the U.S. However, in keeping with Andrew Carnegie’s belief in the importance of libraries in providing access to education for all citizens as well as in helping to strengthen American democracy, the foundation does, from time to time, fund specific library-related efforts such as the “I Love My Librarian” awards. Another example is a 2011 grant of $5 million—given in recognition of the Corporation’s Centennial—to the three New York City public library systems: the New York Public Library, Queens Library and Brooklyn Public Library to help enhance the libraries’ ability to serve the public in general and the city’s 1.1 million public school children in particular. Previous support has included $1 million to help some 800 small and rural libraries across the country to receive the fifty-volume Library of America great books series and $4.5 million in memory of the 9/11 victims, to support the book collections at the New York Public Library and at the Brooklyn and Queens libraries. In addition, the Corporation also recently concluded a decade-long program of assisting in the development of public libraries in South Africa.

Vol. 6 / No. 4 / Spring 2012