Helping Ourselves by Helping Others

By: Emily Blake Collins

October 23, 2014

Much of the present discussion concerning libraries and the recession has centered on what the current economic situation means for librarians: How many will be laid off? Will library technicians be taking on greater responsibilities? What does this mean for the status of the profession? Will the MLIS degree retain its value?

These are all absolutely valid questions, and I certainly do not wish to downplay their importance. However, today I’d like to focus on a different aspect of librarianship in tough economic times, and that is the changing role of libraries in the community.

Perhaps “changing” is too strong a word. Even as technological progress marches on, the fundamental goal of libraries remains the same. Libraries provide information to the public in order to serve the good of the surrounding community. In times of crisis, that role becomes ever more crucial, yet it is often simultaneously viewed as less necessary than other services.

I would like to highlight a few statistics from ALA Fact Sheet 6 concerning public library use. It is a relatively well-known fact that libraries frequently provide internet access for those unable to afford it at home, and equally well-known that the internet is becoming an indispensable tool for job hunters in every field. Yet even knowing that, I was surprised by some of these numbers:

  • 62% of libraries report that they are the only provider of free computer and Internet access in their community

  • 65% of libraries report having an insufficient number of public computers to meet demand, this increases to 87% in urban libraries

  • 50% of libraries report insufficient staff to meet patron job-seeking needs

This is disheartening, to say the least. With the unemployment rate remaining distressingly high, and with even part-time minimum wage jobs requiring online applications, internet access for low-income patrons is an absolute necessity. It has always been a reality that public libraries, like other public institutions, are going to be most lacking in poorer communities where they are needed most. The problem continues to worsen as those who need access to these services are unable to use them to find work, which would lead to the greater spending the economy needs in order to be revitalized.

The economic imbalance is further illustrated when usage is broken down by ethnic categories. From the fact sheet:

  • Among households with children under 18, a larger percentage of Black and Asian households (25 percent and 26 percent respectively) use a public library in the past month for a school assignment than did white or Hispanic households (22 percent and 20 percent respectively)

  • A smaller proportion of white, non-Hispanic households (8 percent) than Black, non- Hispanic households (13 percent), Hispanic households (12 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander households (11 percent) or mixed households (12 percent) used a public library in the past month to use a computer or the Internet (table 22).

As the fact sheet goes on to point out, much of the racial disparity tends to line up with economic disparity. Obviously, race is not a proxy for class, but there does continue to be an unfortunate amount of statistical correlation between race and household income. I do not suggest that libraries have either the power or responsibility to fix the structural inequities that perpetuate this issue, but I do think we will be at our most effective when we remain aware of this reality.

The reason I am drawing attention to these statistics is this: As difficult as the current economic climate is for librarians, we must not forget that ours is a service-oriented profession. Now more than ever, I strongly believe that it is important for librarians to be proactive in soliciting public support. There is a popular assumption among middle- and upper- class Americans that the internet has rendered public libraries obsolete, yet the above statistics would suggest that it has greatly increased their importance. Unfortunately, those in the best position to help are those with the least awareness of the need to do so.

The result of all this is that libraries are seen by some as an unnecessary expenditure by the taxpayers, when nothing could be further from the truth. Potential supporters currently wonder why librarians are necessary at all. This naturally threatens the job security of library professionals, but it also threatens the prospects of those currently in dire financial straits. However, by demonstrating the value we provide to some of the least fortunate members of the community, we can improve the popular view of ourselves and our profession. Perhaps rather than focusing on how to improve public relations for own sake, we would do well to emphasize what we can give to the communities who support us. This is, after all, what true professionalism is about. Furthermore, lest I sound too idealistic, I’d like to close by quoting “The Money Song” from Avenue Q: “When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself!”

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5 thoughts on “Helping Ourselves by Helping Others

  1. I had no idea that such a large portion of libraries were the ONLY free internet providers in their communities.

    I live in Northern Virginia, and it amazes me how great the disparity between the rich and the poor is. I worked as a teaching assistant an elementary school in part of town with a very large population of both immigrants and poverty (often overlapping). I’ve fantasized about building a bunch of libraries and community centers to serve their needs by providing them access to the tools, information, and activities that so many of us take for granted. The lives of those children and their families could be I wish that more people recognized what a vital part of the community libraries are! Do you think there’s a way to get the general population to understand that?

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    • I’ve been wondering about that myself, and I haven’t come up with a lot of good answers yet.

      We definitely need to do what we can to combat the narrative that public libraries are becoming obsolete, but it’s tough to do that with so many people insisting that the internet has replaced them. I know there’s a library near me that tries to draw people in with things like literacy programs, creative writing groups, and art exhibitions, but the money for that has to come from somewhere. The art exhibitions help, because the artists agree to sell pieces and give the library a cut. Sometimes guest lecturers will come in and volunteer to do classes/seminars. Even with all of that, though, the programs still cost something.

      I guess that’s where marketing comes in. If libraries can have an attractive online presence and make their services known to other institutions (schools, museums, etc.), that helps to spread the word that they’re still here and still relevant. Once people are sold on the library, they may be more willing to listen when we point out other needs that it serves.

      -Emily

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  2. Alyssa B. says:

    Emily, I think you bring up an important issue, particularly when there is such a divide between income levels in access to resources and services. I agree that the people that we can most garner support from are the ones that are not aware of the dire situations of their lower income counterparts because they are under the impression that since their library usage has declined, it would across the board. However, libraries differ depending on the community, and the population they serve.

    I agree outreach is necessary to improve the view of libraries and the profession and to make the public more aware of the importance of these services, maybe not specifically to them, but definitely for others. Even within the same community, there will be disparities in library usage related to economic status. It perpetuates a cycle if poorer library users are unable to access the resources they need to make a difference in their lives. If an individual’s only internet access will be at the community library and that service is gone or reduced drastically, then it further puts that person at a disadvantage and keeps them down. They won’t be able to apply for a job and possibly put themselves in a position to access more resources. It is a distressing issue.

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    • You make a good point about different libraries serving different communities. I was trying to speak in a general sense, but you’re right that a lot of my points will be more or less applicable depending on the individual library in question.

      Still, I think we need to focus on making the population as a whole more aware of the issues here. For example, there are some communities where there simply isn’t a library within a reasonable distance for a lot of people, meaning that those who can’t afford their own internet access are basically out of luck. By bringing the problem to a wider audience, however, I think we can gain support for bringing libraries to those people, as well as encouraging people who may not personally be as reliant on their local library’s resources to support it anyway.

      I’ll be the first to admit that what I’m saying sounds a bit idealistic, but I don’t think it’s impossible. As many people as there are saying, “That doesn’t affect me; why should I care?” there are also people who support causes out of genuine concern for other members of society. That’s why I think Step 1 is to make people aware that this is an issue, and that’s what I’m advocating here.

      -Emily

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