Libraries Connect Communities: Site Visits to 63 Public Libraries Reveal the Power of Technology on Staff and Users

Article excerpt

An elderly African-American woman researches her family tree online at her public library.

Nearby, a retired physician, on break from his part-time job, checks the status of his investments.

An immigrant from Pakistan corresponds with journalists in his home country.

At 10 a.m. on a weekday, all but one of the adult computer stations are occupied in a medium-size urban library located in an old school house.

Such scenes were typical during our visits to public libraries for the Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study.

Now in its second year, the study documents the proliferation of information technology in libraries and gathers the only data available on technology expenditures. It is conducted by the American Library Association and the Information Use Management and Policy Institute at Florida State University, with funding from ALA and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The report includes results of a national survey of public libraries and of an questionnaire sent annually to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA).

As part of the study, we made site visits to 63 public libraries in eight states--Delaware, Maryland, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Virginia. The libraries--a mix of urban, suburban, and rural--employ varying levels of information technology.

Scenes such as the ones above constantly amazed us both with the numbers and diversity of people served and the multitude of uses powered by technology. Altogether we conducted focus groups and interviews with some 500 library employees, trustees, and users. What we saw and heard was remarkably consistent and brings the survey findings to life in a way that numbers alone can't.

What staff told us Most directors told us that technology has become a selling point for the library. "In terms of my budget pitch, the library was always thought of as a 9-to-5 operation, but I can clearly walk in there and give them the calendar of the week and say, 'This is our 24-hour, seven-day-a-week cycle of activities, and we're seeing over 1,600 people a day.' I challenge any county commissioner to find another county agency that serves that many people a day--walk in, as well as virtual users."

Even before the latest economic downturn, most directors anticipated flat or declining revenues due to growing resistance to taxes and government budget deficits. Hiring is at a virtual standstill. Our interviews confirmed that many libraries are increasingly turning to grants, fundraising, and gifts to supplement public financing. One small library in a rapidly growing rural-suburban area established a foundation that raised $600,000--designated for technology--in its first year. A Utah library found a corporate sponsor to fund its online reference services.

Cooperation--with other libraries, government agencies, and community groups--is more important than ever. In North Carolina, public libraries banded together to provide downloadable audiobooks at a discounted price. A Utah library director convinced a county IT department to give him laptops that were scheduled to be discarded. A computer user group helped a small Nevada library install wireless.

The impact of technology on library staff cannot be overestimated. "Our world is revolutionized," said one. "We provide so much more service than before we had computers." Ahead of reference observed, "It's changing how we define reference work. We're about teaching people.'' Some staff estimated they spend up to 80% of their time on troubleshooting technology and teaching people how to use it. Helping people perform tasks such as filling out a job application can consume several hours and involve teaching such basic tasks as setting up an e-mail account. "People are overwhelmed. Having staff nearby is critical."

Everywhere we went, frontline staff expressed concerns about their technical skills (or lack thereof). …