Monday, May 11, 2009

Changing times, changing roles

A recent article reiterates the message that a public library is more than a collection of information sources. Dauntingly titled Estimating Library Efficiency Using Stochastic Frontiers it is principally a study of public sector cost efficiencies using public libraries as the test subjects. Summarizing his research, author Jeffrey Hemmeter draws a resonant distinction between the services provided by small town libraries and those, such as the Otis Library serving larger, urban audiences: “Libraries in different settings perform different functions…a library in a small town may focus on books and magazines, while a library in a large city may focus on its role as a community resource for culture and the arts with a lecture series or other events.” There is an equally noteworthy impact on cost efficiencies, attributable to the multifaceted functions a larger institution serving a heterogeneous population must perform: “it is possible that the larger the population, the more services libraries need to perform, decreasing the efficiency measured by the variables in the model.”

Despite the awkwardness of the language-and the arcane mathematics involved-the points made are salient to this library’s role in the community. This library is not an island, and while we can offer a respite from the frenetic pace of life outside our walls, we are not immune to the affects of social problems, economic hardships and pressures generated externally which may affect efficiencies. If we see a change in populations served, as we do now with a growing number of unemployed and possibly homeless youths, age 16-24, we have to act on that knowledge. If constituents need a location in which to perform community service, court ordered or otherwise, we will accommodate that need. If we need to adapt fines on materials to help patrons in straitened financial times, or work with new Americans who need library cards we will explore the options. If more family groups now spend longer periods of time at our programs, request more programs, or simply use the library for extended periods, we have to address the issue or opportunity. By Hemmeter’s yardstick, efficiency is also affected by the energy expended in accommodating the growth in Internet use-61% for adults, April of 2009 vs. April 2008-and incoming interlibrary loans, which increased 62% between April 2008 and April 2009. Finally, the library must help fashion solutions to problems seemingly unrelated to its operation. For example, during the winter, many folks waiting for the Buckingham Shelter to open patronize the library between 5-7 p.m. Come next fiscal year, as a result of financial constraints, that option will disappear on 2 week day nights. While it is not, strictly speaking our responsibility to design a solution, we have an obligation as a center of community activity to help craft a response in collaboration with the Department of Social Services, and St. Vincent De Paul Place. This is part of our role as a community center.

In summary, the roles and responsibilities of a public library evolve to meet the needs of the community it serves. In the case of the Otis Library, that now includes services quite unlike those associated with libraries in less dissonant times. It also means in the foreseeable future addressing demands and responsibilities with fewer resources, fewer staff, and fewer dollars and materials to draw on. That too is reflective of the times we live in.

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