As city governments large and small struggle to fund essential services such as fire protection and safe infrastructure, some managers eye the "non-essential" service provided by the public library as a place to cut the budget.
Library staff and boards are speaking up, arguing that they are one of the few spaces in the world of public democracy available to all members of the community, regardless of age, education, income or interests.
The American Library Association (ALA) seeks to build and enhance existing relationships between local libraries and their communities. "Libraries are uniquely positioned at the heart of local, campus and school communities, enjoying public trust as repositories of knowledge and offering democratic access," the association asserts on a special web site dedicated to the idea of transforming libraries for future growth. "The transformed library leverages its assets to open up new possibilities and go beyond informing to dynamically engaging communities."
ALA calculates there are approximately 119,487 libraries of all kinds in the United States today. More than 9,000 of these are public libraries, consisting of main libraries and often, smaller branches. Many of these are in large buildings, teeming with light and public art. Others are tucked into corners of city hall buildings, or store front sites along a main street in small towns. Others are housed in architecturally significant buildings, owing to the legacy of Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie was a Scottish businessman and industrialist who settled in Pennsylvania, where he developed libraries in communities where he had a business interest. Over the post-Civil War decades, women's groups devoted themselves to the spread of libraries to the average person, encouraging Carnegie to broaden his reach. The Carnegie Foundation would work with any city government that showed the interest and ability to raise their share of the funds.
Carnegie required the elected officials of the local government to demonstrate the need for a public library; provide the building site; pay to staff and maintain the library; draw from public funds to run the library — not using only private donations; annually provide 10 percent of the cost of the library's construction to support its operation; and, provide free service to all.
In addition to free public libraries in the U.S. today, ALA says there are more than 3,700 academic libraries, that is, libraries associated with institutions of higher learning. School libraries serving students in public, private, and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools number more than 98,000. Special libraries, including corporate, medical, law and religious, number almost 7,000. There are about 250 armed forces libraries, and another 900 or so government libraries.
So who says libraries no longer matter, in this age of perceived low readership and information searches conducted on screens the size of a wrist watch? Not the nearly 370,000 employees of libraries across the country. And certainly not their patrons. Key trends about library usage were described in the ALA's 2015 State of America's Libraries Report. "Academic, public and school libraries are experiencing a shift in how they are perceived by their communities and society. No longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished spaces."
The most current federal statistics report on public libraries is Public Libraries in the United States Survey: Fiscal Year 2012 (December 2014). Among their findings are that in 2012, there were 1.5 billion in-person visits to public libraries across the United States, which was similar to fiscal year 2011 levels. This was an increase of 20.7 percent over a 10-year period. The public invested more than $11.5 billion in revenue to public libraries. This was similar to FY 2011 levels, after adjusting for inflation. According to the report, more than 92.6 million people attended the 4 million programs at public libraries. This was a 1-year increase of 5.2 percent and a 10-year increase of 54.4 percent.
Libraries are adapting and meeting the service needs of their patrons no matter where they are located. Rural and small libraries are just as apt as their metro area counterparts to be not just places for books, but centers for applying for jobs, meeting with free volunteer tax consultants, meeting with navigators knowledgeable about the Affordable Care Act, and other social services residents have trouble obtaining elsewhere.
The Association for Rural and Small Libraries is a national professional organization based in Lexington, Ky., for just these sorts of librarians and library staff. According to their website, ARSL is "dedicated to the positive growth and development of libraries." Their mission states that "ARSL believes in the value of rural and small libraries and strives to create resources and services that address national, state, and local priorities for libraries situated in rural communities."
The current board president, Jet Kofoot, lives in the country outside a small town in Iowa. She has a master's of library science degree from the University of Northern Iowa, and was the library director in Algona, Iowa before becoming a consultant. Most recently, she was a consultant with the North Central District of Iowa Library Services.
Kofoot has spent time considering the small and rural library perspective on library services. She frames her thoughts on the well-documented population decline of rural counties around the nation. However, she dispels the notion that there are major differences in how libraries are hoping to respond to changing patron needs based on the size of the community where they are based. However, she believes that the smaller the community, the more magnified the need for library services becomes.
"Many times in small or rural communities, schools have closed and consolidated. That means the library is the only thing left in town. Maybe there is a church, maybe there's still a bar, but the library is the only educational or cultural resource in town. If a town loses its library, people have to travel many miles to access services," she says.
In this case "services" means more than only a place to check out books or read current newspapers and magazines. For example, the Algona library, which was founded in 1890, serves a town of 5,500. The library has 12 internet-enabled desktop computers. There are also two laptop computers with Internet access that are reserved for research, school work, job searches, and resume writing. It has four rooms available for rent that come equipped with tables chairs, coffee pots, dishes and glasses, even dish soap and trash bags. The library has free WiFi for patrons with Internet-enabled devices. There is a charge of 50 cents to check out a DVD for 4 days. It has a book club, open to the public. It offers access to online reference materials and genealogy websites, enhancing the community's awareness of its local history.
This library is typical of libraries across the country, Kofoot says, and ALA statistics bear this out. Studies they cite show that 98 percent of all public libraries offer free public Wi-Fi access; 95 percent of libraries offer summer reading programs; close to 90 percent of libraries offer basic digital literacy training, and a significant majority support training related to new technology devices (62 percent), safe online practices (57 percent) and social media use (56 percent). In addition, 76 percent of libraries assist patrons in using online government programs and services; a vast majority of libraries provide programs that support people in applying for jobs. A significant majority of libraries host social connection events for adults and teens; 45 percent of libraries provide early-learning technologies for pre-K children; and more than one-third of all libraries provide literacy, GED prep and after school programs.
Kofoot says small and rural libraries become the de facto community center. "Often, the library is the only game in town. Many libraries keep the coffee pot on and have snacks out for patrons. In larger cities, people have coffee shops, diners and fast food places where they can meet over a cup of coffee. In many rural small towns, that isn't necessarily the case. Libraries look at their community and see what they need, and provide it."
Public libraries of all sizes face funding challenges, but Kofoot says these are compounded in rural and small towns. That's because they have much smaller budgets because they don't have as many businesses to tax, as compared to larger cities. "It can be a struggle for rural and small towns to find revenue. That causes problems because it makes it difficult to provide library services. Books are expensive. Library staff learns to be creative about programming."
From her experience as a consultant, Kofoot offers this suggestion to libraries facing skepticism about their relevance in the 21st century. "Libraries should make a strategic plan to offer services based on community needs. Rural and small libraries are able to do that because they are closer to their community. In a big city library services can be lost in the crowd because so much is available. In a small rural community, the library is connected to the pulse of the community and can be more flexible," she says.
One good way to develop community engagement is through a library's volunteer pool. Often they recruit volunteers or Friends of the Library board members to help with programming, landscaping, and even baking treats for meetings. Often a Friends group is the key fundraising arm of the library, providing a way for citizens to contribute directly to support library services, beyond the support they already provide through payment of taxes.
Small towns often look to their young people as not just people who need education and oversight, but as resources to cultivate for the town's future. That's one reason libraries work hand in glove with schools, providing reading programs for young children over the summers. But by the time youngsters become teenagers, they are less interested or able to take part in library services geared toward them, Kofoot says.
"Many libraries work diligently to get teens to come in. But, teens are so busy and they have so many things going on that the library takes a back seat. You see many children and 'tweens' in our libraries, but teens tend to be the least served group in many libraries. Until they grow up and have children of their own." Then Kofoot says, they come back and bring their kids to the library with them.
Julianne Couch is the author of "The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century."