WASHINGTON, D.C. (NNPA)–Between the rise of digital media, changing social landscapes, and decreased funding, the nation’s 8,956 public library systems are at a crisis stage. And underserved communities and people of color stand to lose more than other communities.
Public libraries stand in the gap for many Black Americans and their households. In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 47% of African American respondents 16 years and older had visited a library within the past year. Blacks and Latinos were more likely to consider their public library’s services “very important to their lives.”
This is particularly true in the case of Internet access, as Black people are less likely than their White counterparts to have high-speed Internet access at home. In addition to being left behind in a digital age, much of the job market has gone online. Many employers no longer offer an in-person application option.
The library is often the only place in a community where a person can receive free technical assistance and help with applying for jobs online.
“The library becomes a social change agent where people of African descent can go, and have a safe space, and empower themselves,” said Princess Black, a Statesboro, Ga. native studying library science at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “As we’re moving further into the 21st century, the library’s responsibility, especially to African American communities, is to mold and shape itself into whatever the community needs it to be.”
Black points to the Ferguson Public Library as an example. As the demonstrations around Michael Brown’s killing pushed the Ferguson-Florissant school district’s first day of school back a week, the small library became a makeshift school for 200 students, and a safe space for the community during unrest.
“Ferguson [Public Library] is a very small library. It only has one full-time librarian. Given the climate, he could’ve easily said ‘no’; however, he allowed them to use the space,” Black said.
The Ferguson head librarian, Scott Bonner, also helped organizers find partners to provide overflow space, food, and school materials. Bonner was one month into the job.
“And so he got rolled into a position of basically being an activist,” Black said. “The library has broken away from the tradition entity it used to be—[they] now play an active role in social justice.”
Black says that because the duty to serve the community is so inherent, libraries and librarians often do not recognize their roles as agents of social justice.
And generally, neither do those outside the library science field. Today, the public library system is facing the challenge to innovate, while also demonstrating its value and purpose.
Currently, public libraries act as a community center and equalizing force, offering free computer, literacy, and language classes, Internet and information access, shelter, child activities and youth programs, life skills workshops, and social connection. Public libraries provide safe space for community organizing, and for students, senior citizens, and indigent people who have few options.
Last year, the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based education and policy think tank, convened a Dialogue on Public Libraries Working Group to explore and create strategies to sustain and elevate public library systems. The 35-member group includes library science professionals, philanthropists, corporate CEOs, government officials, nonprofit executives, and researchers. Last month, the Working Group released a report titled, ‘Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries.’
“One challenge is that often libraries are taken for granted,” said Maureen Sullivan, a Working Group member and former president of the American Library Association. “Libraries are sometimes the first place funding is cut, because policymakers often do not understand just what public libraries mean to their communities today.”
Almost 85% of all public library operating budgets are from local sources, primarily taxes. The remaining amount comes from states, and other sources such as grants or donors. Federal funds account for well under 1 percent of public library operating costs.
Because of this, public library budgets contend with the ebb and flow of several factors each year. The Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries, for example, are facing a combined $57 million decrease in funding and 19% decrease in staff, according to the Aspen report. Funding is also a serious problem in rural areas, in terms of providing high-speed Internet, services, and adequate staff.
“Further complicating the library funding situation is the increase in government mandates that have affected expectations of public libraries in supporting e-government services,” the report reads. “There has been a noticeable shift in what this requires of libraries—moving from simply providing government forms to providing computers and training to access and navigate. Very often, libraries must deliver services to meet these growing demands without any additional funding to cover the costs.”
“Most libraries are fighting and scuffing for resources because there’s this idea that libraries are not necessary—there’s e-books and the Internet and all these things. When I tell people I’m in librarian school they’re like ‘who needs libraries, Google is the library!’” Black said. “But libraries today play a central role in every community, regardless of if it’s impoverished or well-off. What the library can do for you is boundless—anything you can think of can emerge from a library if you put it to use.”
As libraries move into the future, the report calls for the strengthening of public libraries as community hubs, and ensuring that libraries can provide content in all formats, from books and publications to e-books, Internet radio shows, and other digital media.
The Working Group also wants to bolster public libraries as a point of access to the digital, globalized world. By linking libraries to each other via the Internet, for example, people will no longer be bound by geography when using library resources.
These predictions are already coming to pass. For example, the Central Arkansas Library System has its own theatre where the community can take in plays, films, music performances, and children’s story times. Maryland’s Howard County Library System offers a hi-tech digital media lab where teens participate in STEM classes, trips, and workshops.
For those interested in supporting their local libraries, Sullivan recommends visiting in person, getting a library card, and participating in events.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of another institution in communities designed to serve everyone this way. Every state has great library systems,” she said. “Let the library know about [your] information needs, and tell public officials how the library makes a difference for [you].”