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!”