When we first started blogging back in 2011, support for libraries was uncontroversial. Bloggers uniformly seemed to appreciate the commitment of libraries to providing equal access, promoting literacy, and serving as a community space for everyone free of charge. Recently, however, appreciation for libraries seems to have dimmed as readers raise concerns about libraries with limited resources and services, short hours, and poor marketing. Some also seem to see the lack of libraries in some areas as a mark against the idea of libraries in general. The concerns readers raise about libraries are valid. However, instead of seeing the limitations of libraries as reasons to withdraw support from them, I propose that we view the complaints of readers as a starting point for us to imagine how libraries can continue to grow to meet the needs of communities.
It order to begin discussing libraries and how to improve them, it is important to understand how they are funded. In the United States, most libraries are primarily supported by a combination of state and local funding. Sometimes, libraries seem to be doing well, but are in fact underfunded–a key reason many have shortened hours, reduced staff, and small collections. For example, my local library consistently markets its renovations and new services. Yet I recently learned from speaking to a librarian that taxpayer funding for the library really has not gone up since it was drastically cut about ten years ago during the recession. The improvements being advertised are often the results of fundraising and grants. But libraries cannot survive on fundraising and grants, which are best suited for one-time projects and not for the daily running and maintenance of an institution. Libraries need consistent funding from the government if they are to stay open longer, hire more staff, and offer more materials for check outs.
To get increased funding, however, libraries need the support of taxpayers. Taxpayers need to write to their government representatives specifically asking for an increase in funding. And, often, taxpayers need to agree to pay more taxes to do this. In some areas in the U.S., increased funding has been offered through a raise in taxes, and been voted down by the people. In these cases, people feel the need to protect their own money instead of investing in a local library. But libraries should be seen as investments, with a small contribution from each person offering large returns in terms of educating the local community, providing a community meeting space, offering services to the homeless, helping job seekers find employment, and more. The entire community is ultimately raised up by having a library.
Communities without libraries can begin conversations with their officials to determine how to get one. Some smaller communities might decide to pay taxes towards a neighboring library rather than building their own. Some communities may find a public library is not going to happen soon, but may find creative alternatives while working towards that goal. For instance, citizens might consider investing in classroom or school libraries to improve childhood literacy (since children spend so much of their time in school and would need no transportation elsewhere to get books). They may build Little Free Libraries or start book swaps in schools and businesses. They may start programs that mail books to students. People are always finding new and creative ways to support literacy–their momentum can be contagious. The lack of a library or limited access to books does not have to be a permanent condition.
But, of course, the conversation always has to continue. Libraries are always trying to figure out ways to reach more people, people who often have needs that may be easy to overlook. Some people, for instance, may not own a car, so libraries may start bookmobiles, open new branches, or have pop-up libraries. Some individuals may have medical conditions that make leaving home difficult, so libraries have offered services that mail books to homes or bring volunteers with books to the homes of patrons. No library is perfect, but librarians are always willing to listen and always willing to help.
When librarians seem not to help, I have found that it is often because circumstances are beyond their control. Limited budgets, for instance, may mean that libraries cannot extend hours as people wish. Limited staff may mean more programs cannot be offered. Limited shelf space may mean they cannot purchase that 30-book manga series–that only one person has expressed interest in. In such cases, change rests upon the taxpayers, who should try to ascertain how they can help the library by lobbying for more funding.
Other cases where libraries seem not to care may simply be cases that are misunderstood by the public. For instance, some patrons may dislike the timing of a program and wish it were held in the afternoon instead of the morning. The staff, however, may have already tried afternoon programs and found attendance was non-existent. Or the library may have made efforts that are invisible. For instance, I suggested awhile back that my library offer a pop-up library in laundromats, as I had read about this outreach idea online. I later learned that the library staff tried to do this–but could not find a laundromat that agreed to let them have a story time there. In these cases, complaining about how the library does not hold programs at convenient times or does not do outreach in certain areas is both unhelpful and unfair.
Libraries may not do everything or have everything patrons wish. Some places may not have a library at all. But I think we can keep the conversation positive and proactive. What needs to be done to get libraries functioning more effectively, to get resources to people more conveniently, to get libraries to exist at all? And how can we personally be a part of making it all happen?