Libraries Advance against All Odds

By Peirce, Neal | Nation's Cities Weekly, August 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

Libraries Advance against All Odds


Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly


America's public libraries, fast turning themselves into "one-stop shops" for digital job searches, appear to be staging one of their great historic transformations.

Responding to a rush of recession-time visitors, 88 percent of our libraries now offer access to job databases. And at least two-thirds of library staffs are helping applicants complete online job applications, according to a national survey by the American Library Association and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As for access to free wireless services, 82 percent of libraries now provide it--up from just 37 percent four years ago. In two-thirds of cases, the libraries are the only source of free Internet service in their communities.

What's amazing is that many libraries are able to maintain the bulk of their services and adapt to growing needs during a recession, even in the face of snowbailing funding cuts by their local governments. More than 55 percent of urban libraries are reporting budget cuts, and a quarter have felt obliged to cut hours or close branches. Fifteen percent reduced their hours of operation in 2009--three times the number reported in 2008. And 50 percent report they have insufficient staff to meet their patrons' job-seeking needs.

But they're not taking it quietly. In Indianapolis, neighborhoods around the branches facing possible closure became very active, holding read-ins, marches and letter-writing campaigns. In Camden, N.J., one of America's poorest cities, a fierce public outcry has followed the threat to close the entire library system.

And when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed 37 percent cuts to his city's library budgets, advocates argued it would be the first time in the system's 138-year history that libraries would be open just five days a week. And they came up with a strong productivity argument. In 1978, when there were 61 L.A. libraries (there are now 72), 1,459 staff librarians served 6 million visitors. Under Villaraigosa's budget, they noted, there'd only be 848 staff slots--to serve 18 million visitors.

The silver lining for communities, note library sources, is that threats of actual branch closures create such a strong pushback that most communities compromise with cuts that go no further than constriction in staff or branches.

The reality, says Audra Caplan, director of the Harford County, Md., Public Library and president of the Public Library Association, is that the role of public libraries has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. And computers and job-search assistance, while highly significant, aren't the whole story.

"We've turned ourselves into community centers," notes Caplan. …

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