Tuesday, February 19, 2008

If you build a new library they will come. But what will they do?

One of the important questions currently facing the library concerns it role in the community. At first blush the answer seems self-evident: this library has an historic mission to act as an information gatekeeper, that is to act as guide and provider, sometimes an arbiter for a population seeking particular types of information. Despite the acknowledgments paid to the evolving role of libraries in society, that their purpose may be changing, or is being altered, I think the common perception remains that information provider is a core reason for libraries in society: elucidating, educating, guiding inquiries in pursuit of knowledge, principally through books but by other means as well. That continues as a role for this library, especially given the realities of life in an urban library. Unlike some of the suburban libraries I have visited and worked in, the free public internet computers are not gathering dust. Folks need the 16 computers available in the reference/adult services area because that remains their only-or principal- access to the resources available on line, to job applications, government forms and other necessary items. The queues remain long, and few sessions end early. So, that role for the moment remains important.

As you might have anticipated, here comes the BUT. When I look at the monthly statistics, I wonder about the significance of the information role in the panoply of services accessible to the public. Empirically, we can substantiate the robust levels of patronage hoped for when the building program was conceived. Based on the sheer volume of visits, it is simple enough to quantify the use of the facility. In both our temporary location and in the previous, unlamented incarnation of the library at 261 Main Street, a day registering 300 visits was considered good, or average to good. Since January 1 of 2008, the average week day number hovers around 850. On an above average day, that figure surges to around 1,0000, and on an exceptional day, 1,800 visits were recorded. Looking at the number of new library cards registered at the library confirms the increase in use. Back in July a record 422 new users requested cards or had their bar code added to our patron date base. Subsequently, and not unexpectedly, that number has decreased to a less stratospheric but still impressive 200-plus additions per month. Statistically, that remains impressive, and confirms the importance of the library as a destination. And yet, while this may sound like an obsessive hunt to find the but among what appear to be sanguine indicators, I cannot help feeling that we need to identify future roles and reasons for the library, even as we bask in the knowledge that statistically, we are indeed meeting expectations and then some.

Some of the impetus for reassessment and identification of new roles is based on strategic changes taking place in the accessability to information. For generations the mission of libraries remained essentially unchanged. Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute neatly summarizes this immutable mission as follows: “ Leading up to today libraries have consisted of large collections of books and other materials, primarily funded and maintained by cities or other institutions. Collections are often used by people who choose not to, or can not afford to, purchase books for themselves.” Now, and in the future, the role of library as information arbiter and custodian is changing. From a time when information was scarce and defined as a precious commodity, we have entered irreversibly, a time when information is readily accessible in multiple forms, often as easily retrieved electronically while seated in a coffee house as in an archive, and no longer the preserve of librarians and arcane source materials. You can argue the efficacy of a Google search versus a search conducted with a skilled reference librarian, but as Frey points out, “the vast majority of people with specific information needs no longer visit libraries.” That's a generalization valided by the OCLC Report Perceptions of Library and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership (2005). Surveying 270,000 information users, the report confirms that "the library is not the first or only stop for information seekers." They are more likely to gravitate to search engines, especially Google, e-mail and instant messaging than the library, the librarians, the library web site, or our vaunted arsenal of databases. Yes, we will continue to attract readers, and it will be some time, if ever, before everything needed or desired in the way of information is available outside a library. I dare say that in our community there will continue to be a need for the information services currently provided. But the general message is not wrong. It should be acknowledged as a tocsin by those institutions determined to play a central role in their communities.

So, while I believe we will maintain our position as an information provider, and empirically, I have not no reason to doubt the importance of that service at this time, continued growth in patronage will be based on our ability to adapt to changing needs and a commitment to regularly reassess the mission of the library. I believe one of the contributing factors in the growth of the library’s user base to date is our willingness to embrace the changing nature of the library as a community institution. Some of this reflects a conscious effort, already underway, to find niches for the library to fill. Exemplary of these, the library has embraced a new role as a passport application center, based on the need for a site to replace the city clerk’s office. This was also a responsibility well suited to the library’s operating hours and constituent needs. With extended hours on Monday-Thursday, and Saturday and Sunday hours on the weekends, the library can accept and review applications outside of the usual 9-5 time frame, thus accommodating shift workers and persons with more than one job. Similarly, new initiatives, like a student internship program introducing high school students to the library profession, an online newsletter to inform and poll constituents on current performance and future needs, an advisory board for our Young Adult collection, are reflections of the transitional state libraries find themselves in, and the critical need to revisit and redefine the mission and responsibilities of community libraries with the participation of community members. On the staff level, there is regular solicition of patron opinions and suggestions, be it via informal chats, program assessments, or in the director’s case by conversations while practicing MBWA, or Management by Walking Around.

Despite some of the ominous tinges to the DaVinci Institute and OCLC findings, libraries are far from vestigial or artifacts. However the previously "assumed" role of information provider is no longer unchallenged. We, like other community libraries will thrive if we are willing to redesign library services to meet the needs and expectations of communities we serve. That will mean providing content in new ways, and in such as fashion that it will be used regularly. As OCLC notes, that means we do more than simply educate information consumers about the current library.It will involve dynamic missions, public engagement, dialogue, and new ideas, among other things. There will continue to be a need for libraries as meeting places, as vehicles for personal enrichment, as places to read as public forums, and as one of the few public spaces where all segments of the community find themselves in proximity to each other and on common ground. It is an exciting time to be a librarian, especially in this library!


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