how to save the public library (a fry truck experience)

I have two papers due on the same day, and one of them is the most dreaded assignment for the most dreaded class of my entire degree. At least that will soon be over with! Unfortunately, though, this leaves me with little brain or time to blog.

I will use this as an opportunity to post one of my papers. The last time I posted a paper, it sparked some interesting discussion. At the very least, this will help me feel like my blog is not a total waste of pixels. Plus, this paper earned me fries! I got them yesterday. They were just the way I like them: super well-done, crispy.

This was my final paper for the course Foundations of Library and Information Science. From a choice of topics I chose this:
Select one type of library or information centre. Discuss the most serious challenges facing that institution today, paying particular attention to its foundational values, principles and assumptions. What kinds of activities (research, services, education, staffing, funding, etc) might turn these challenges into opportunities?
I've removed the citations or turned them into links where possible.

* * * *

Privatization, Digitization, and How the Public Library Can Survive:
the Four Rs

The most serious challenges facing the public library today are unchecked capitalism, the disintermediation brought by digital technologies, and the intersection of the two. This paper explores the present and potential effects of those challenges on the health and future of public libraries in North America. With a nod to the Canadian Library Association's President’s Council on the 8Rs, this paper proposes the 4Rs needed to turn these challenges into opportunities: relevancy, reinvention, raising awareness, and resistance.

The dominant economic model and social spending priorities

When discussing the challenges facing public libraries, funding generally tops the list. Funding, however, is a symptom of an underlying disease. First-world societies around the globe are suffering through drastic cutbacks of public-sector spending. In the United Kingdom, 500,000 workers will be jettisoned from public payrolls in the next four years. Widespread library closures are expected; as many as one out of every four librarians may lose her job over the next year. In the United States, cities and states cannot afford adequate public services; public libraries have resorted to charging fees, reducing hours and closing branches to survive. Although the situation is Canada is not as dire, Canadian municipalities have never recovered from the spending cuts of earlier decades. At the same time, in 2010 U.S. businesses earned profits at the highest rate since statistics have been kept, totaling $1.66 trillion in the third quarter alone. The tax structure ensures that the public coffers enjoy no corresponding rise in wealth, and a full 54% of the U.S. federal budget feeds a military-industrial complex that is largely privatized. Viewed through this lens, the public library suffers not from a mere lack of funds, but from an economic system that privileges private-sector profit over public welfare.

Digitization leading to a perception of obsolescence

The public library is also challenged by digitization and the disintermediation of the internet. In information school classes, professional journals and library blogs, one constantly encounters the question, "Can Google replace the library?". Titles such as "Where is the librarian in the digital library?" and "Competing with Google in a special library" abound. While many professions grapple with the encroachment of technology on jobs once thought to be immune to automation, librarians are unusual in the persistent gap between the librarian's understanding of her job and the public's understanding of it. Class discussions and student field reports demonstrate that library users underestimate and under-value the work of librarians, observations supported by research. While citizens may research medical or legal questions online, they still see a doctor when they are ill or hire a lawyer to represent them in court. After gathering information online, how many people consult a librarian? Indeed, our profession's core values may unintentionally contribute to our own demise, as we encourage independent information-seeking.

The perception that the internet has rendered librarians obsolete creates an easy, if mistaken, budget solution: their expensive professional salaries become a logical target for the budget axe. Without professional staff, the library becomes a mere book repository run by clerks. In several U.S. cities, human interaction has been eliminated entirely with the introduction of automated "book lockers," which resemble vending machines. The demise of the public library speaks to issues much larger than protecting our profession; it widens the digital divide. Many people depend upon the library for both computer use and internet access. Inadequate funding decreases public access to education and information – an injustice to the community, and a danger to democratic values. If we want a society that values education, inquiry, self-government and freedom of information for all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status, then we must protect the public library as an essential service.

Four Rs: relevancy, reinvention, raising awareness, resistance

Public libraries can address this challenge with a four-pronged approach:
* relevancy – stay relevant to the community,
* reinvention – make the library an indispensable community centre,
* raising awareness – promote the reinvented library, and
* resistance – fight for a society that values public services.

Relevancy. If libraries are to continue to receive public funding, they must remain relevant to the communities they serve – a seemingly simple statement, but a complex, controversial, and sometimes contradictory mandate. Relevancy may focus on collection development, with a robust collection of popular novels and movies. Or relevancy may be framed in educational terms: Baldwin feels the "'give 'em what they want' philosophy" is a dangerous mistake, and proposes librarians become "knowledge provocateurs," helping users access "real information" through alternate news sources. For Birdi, Wilson and Tso, relevancy presupposes empathy – the human touch that distinguishes the library from an internet search engine. Not only will relevancy be defined differently by different libraries, that definition should evolve with each community's needs. Relevancy should be an ongoing conversation – a process more than a product – that includes input from users, gathered through surveys, usage tracking, focus groups, and other methods. In an era when the need for the public library is being questioned, librarians cannot afford to ignore or dismiss this discussion.

Reinvention. This paper proposes that the best way for libraries to remain relevant is to reinvent themselves as community centres – a one-stop shop, so to speak, for a variety of services tailored to the needs of its community. Free computer classes, high-speed internet access, resume workshops, education and career research, and space for book clubs are only a few obvious possibilities. McKenzie et. al study libraries that offer storytime for parents and toddlers, and a meeting space for a knitting group. Fisher, Durrance and Hinton describe the rich programs of New York City's Queens Borough Public Library (QBPL), aimed at the borough’s burgeoning and diverse immigrant population. The QBPL's workshops in language, literacy, employment, and cultural understanding offer tremendous potential for users, and position the library as an indispensable resource. In the Mississauga Library System, users can join an English conversation circle, research their ancestry, or borrow a pedometer as part of a program to encourage physical activity. The possibilities are limited only by imagination and budget, and creative programming may result in increased funding.

Raising awareness. Programs are useless if people don't know they exist. Libraries must exploit every means available to promote their programs – social networking media, community newspapers, outdoor signage, email alerts, public school visits, brochures. The QBPL, for example, distributes millions of multilingual brochures annually and taps into ethnic media outlets. We must be alert to new and creative ways to trumpet our services and present libraries as the essential service we believe they are. Combining the first three Rs – reinventing the public library as a community centre with an emphasis on relevancy, then promoting those programs in the community – will ultimately translate into more library users. More users help justify continued funding.

Resistance. The final "R" in the 4R plan is resistance, used in the political sense: actively opposing government policies that destroy public services. Rather than see ourselves in competition with other public-sector employees for a slice of a shrinking public-sector pie, we should strive to make a larger pie. Author Philip Pullman made this connection when speaking out against the massive cuts to library services announced in the U.K.:
Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished. . . . [T]he delusion that has gripped every politician in the western world for 30 years or so now is that when you lower taxes, the commercial world will take care of everything. The destruction of the library service is part of a wider malaise.
This activism can take many forms – lobbying the government, working to elect representatives committed to the public sector, writing letters to newspapers, blogging, leafletting. Resistance should especially include supporting other municipal workers in their struggles – teachers, transit workers, nurses, sanitation workers. We must look beyond the issues of our own profession, and help create a society that is willing to support public services. If we want a world that values public libraries, we have to create it.


While it may appear that the greatest challenge facing public libraries today is a shortage of resources, the developed world has sufficient wealth to maintain stellar libraries. However, the dominant economic system impedes the adequate funding of libraries and other essential public services. If libraries are to survive and thrive, librarians must keep libraries relevant and must raise awareness of library programs within their communities. This paper proposes a reinvention of the public library as a multifaceted community centre. From a broader perspective, librarians must join the struggle to create a society that values and maintains healthy public services.

[references not linked above]

Abram, S. (2005). Competing with Google in a special library. Information Outlook, 9(11), 46-47.

Baldwin, M. (2006). Librarians as knowledge provocateurs. Verso, 11(4), 11-14.

Birdi, B., Wilson, K., & Tso, H. M. (2009). The nature and role of empathy in public librarianship. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 41(2), 81-89.

Borgman, C. (2001). Where is the librarian in the digital library? Communications of the ACH, 44(5), 66-67.

Fisher, K., Durrance, J., & Hinton, M. (2004). Information grounds and the use of need-based services by immigrants in Queens, New York: A context based, outcome evaluation approach. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(8), 754-66.

Harris, R. (2008). Their little bit of ground slowly squashed into nothing: Technology, gender, and the vanishing librarian. In G. J. Leckie & J. E. Buschman (Ed.), Information Technology in Librarianship: New Critical Approaches. (pp. 165-180). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

McKenzie, P., Prigoda, E., Moffatt, K., & McKechnie, L. (2006). Behind the program-room door: The creation of parochial and private women’s realms in a Canadian public library. In J. E. Buschman & G. J. Leckie (Eds). The Library as place: History, community, and culture (pp. 117-134). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

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