Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Twenty-First Century Public Library Adult Services

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Twenty-First Century Public Library Adult Services

Article excerpt

The author explores the provision of adult services over the last two decades through an analysis of several studies. She also discusses the change from roles to service responses, and analyzes those currently listed on libraries' Web sites. Information on planning methods used by Alabama librarians is reported. The author recommends various methods for attempting to discover which services are being offered by today's public libraries and exhorts the profession to make this attempt a priority.


Public libraries house collections of materials and provide a variety of services for their adult patrons. Most purchase books and periodicals, and also provide some level of reference, readers' advisory service, and public-use computers. Beyond these, libraries vary considerably in the specific formats collected and the number and types of other services provided.

In 1990, Adult Services: An Enduring Focus for Public Libraries reported the results of the Adult Services in the Eighties (ASE) project. (1) Based on survey returns from 4,215 individual libraries representing 1,114 library systems nationwide, the researchers identified seventy-three different services offered to adults by the responding libraries. During discussion of public library adult services in the author's classes in adult services and materials and public library management, the students are told about the services identified by the ASE. Invariably, they ask which formats and other services most public libraries offer their patrons today, especially in light of the ubiquity of the Internet. This teacher has to admit that she does not know.

Often the students ask how library directors and boards decide which formats and services to provide. That is somewhat easier to answer. They are informed that some librarians and boards merely keep on doing what has always been done at their libraries, and that others add new formats that they have read about in professional journals, learned about at professional conferences, heard about from their patrons or colleagues, or seen offered at other libraries. The students are also told that many librarians base decisions on patron requests, results of community and user surveys, focus groups, and careful study of community demographics and information needs. The students learn that since 1980 many librarians and boards, working with committees of lay citizens, have used various versions of the Public Library Association (PLA) planning process to assess community needs and make decisions about formats and services, and that those using the current version choose which to emphasize from thirteen service responses. The students are, of course, encouraged to employ these valuable methods in their own current and future planning efforts.

The students then ask how many libraries use each of these methods and whether using the planning process really results in libraries adding new formats or services, emphasizing different ones, and dropping formats or discontinuing services. And again, somewhat chagrined, their teacher has to answer that she has absolutely no idea about their first question and is not really sure about their second question.

In an attempt to answer the questions posed above, this article reviews the small body of research conducted from the mid-1980s to the present on (1) which services public libraries provide to adult users of public libraries; and (2) some of the tools used for choosing which services to provide. The article concludes with recommendations of various methods for increasing the knowledge base in the area of public library adult services.

What Services Do Today's Public Libraries Provide Adults?

The nationwide survey conducted for the ASE project in the mid-1980s identified seventy-three different public library adult services, nearly two-thirds of which were available at more than 25 percent of the libraries responding. …

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