What Should the Role of Libraries Be During the Pandemic?

In a previous post, I explored the potential impacts of librarians’ vocational awe on the community. I used the definition of vocational awe found in Fobazi Ettarh’s “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” to question whether libraries had lost their focus by taking on tasks best performed by other organizations trained for and dedicated to those tasks. The pandemic, of course, has made such questions even more relevant, as libraries attempt to pivot to answer the needs of their communities, and to continue to provide services during stay-at-home orders. Some libraries responded by refusing to close back in the spring, or by attempting to reopen fully back in the summer or fall. Many libraries have responded by offering curbside services and virtual programming. However, in the July 2020 of School Library Journal, Mega Subramaniam and Linda W. Braun argued that libraries should be providing social services in an article provocatively titled, “Wake Up, Libraries: Curbside Pickup is NOT the Answer.” This article is a telling example of the way in which vocational awe has been ingrained in the profession, with librarians chastising their peers for not risking their lives and pivoting to become social workers during a time of crisis.

Before we explore the arguments put forward by Subramaniam and Braun, we should first look at Ettarh’s definition of vocational awe. Ettarh writes that, “‘Vocational awe’ refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh goes on to illustrate how job creep, or the expectation that employees will take on increasing job duties with no additional compensation, is one of the primary ways vocational awe manifests in libraries. Because libraries (and their employees) see themselves as upholding a “sacred” institution that provides equal access and protects democracy, they are willing to takes on roles they have not been prepared for or trained for in the name of meeting the needs of the community. To refuse to do so would be unthinkable, because the sacred mission of the library must never be questioned or critiqued. Those who speak out against job creep are seen as unwilling and unable to make the sacrifices necessary to be a “good” librarian, and treated accordingly.

Under this definition, we can see how the proposals Subramaniam and Braun make are a prime example of vocational awe. In their article, they proclaim that libraries have been “focusing service on low-hanging fruit by reformatting traditional offerings” (creating virtual programming, offering increased WiFi access, starting curbside pickup, etc.) and have thus failed to meet the true needs of their communities. They argue that libraries need to, “Shift emphasis from physical access to the library and technology (i.e. curbside pick-ups, summer reading programs) and instead focus on how to establish relationships with the community irrespective of the library physical space.” They propose that libraries do this by focusing on key areas such as meeting insecurities (such as lack of food, clothing, employment, etc.), supporting schools and learning, supporting youth employment, encouraging activism, and providing accurate health information. In other words, libraries should pivot from providing access to information and materials to providing social services.

I think that Subramaniam and Braun’s proposals likely come from two places: a place of caring and a place of fear. Librarians are trained to help people and, during a time of crisis, they understandably start thinking how they can meet people where they are. In some cases, this may indeed mean moving away from an emphasis on the materials collection and towards an emphasis on other services and community partnerships. I also think, however, that libraries fear that closing during the pandemic means government officials will see their work as “non-essential” and believe that the library is truly irrelevant and outdated. If they want local officials to continue funding libraries, the workers need to find a way to show they are necessary during a crisis. So workers stop thinking about how to circulate the latest YA releases and start wondering what they can do to make their importance visible during a time no one can enter the building. Subramaniam and Braun suggest the answer is to offer social services.

I would suggest that this type of thinking is both unfair to librarians and to the communities they serve. Librarians are trained to be information professionals, and not social service workers. What they can offer is probably not as good as what a trained professional or organization can offer in their place. Furthermore, librarians did not ask to be social workers. They did not go to school for that job or apply to that job. To ask them to take on that kind of work–especially with no training–is not right at the best of times, but even worse now. Librarians probably did not go into their line of work imagining that they might have to literally risk their lives or the lives of people they know and care about, in pursuit of serving the community. Telling them that they cannot simply offer curbside pickup and virtual options during a global pandemic, but must go out into the community to provide social services (because you can’t really offer food security or employment services if your building is closed to the public) is to ask them to perform a job they never signed up for. Maybe we would like to believe that the average librarian is willing to risk their lives to offer job help, but I do not think we can blame them if they are not. After all, how many of us would be willing to do the same?

The type of thinking exemplified by the Subramaniam and Braun article is, however, more than a prime example of vocational awe. It is also an example of libraries losing their focus in the attempt to be relevant. Very often, libraries try to be relevant by meeting community needs that are currently unfilled. During the pandemic, this might mean handing out free food and clothing, offering to read and review resumes, creating youth activism clubs, and more. But what happens when the pandemic ends? When the need is met? Libraries lose their relevance when it becomes clear that they are not really a soup kitchen, not really a career center. Then they must pivot again, to find a new, unfilled need that they can meet.

This raises the question: “What is the core mission of the library?” Is it really to take on any community need, as that need arises? Should workers expect to pivot constantly from one job to another, with little or no training? Or can the core mission of the library be re-imagined as something more stable, something that libraries can constantly refresh as community need and engagement changes, without having to redefine their entire job function?

These questions have been circulating around libraries for awhile, as they seek to transform with the times and to demonstrate their relevance in a constantly-changing world. However, I think the pandemic has heightened the dialogue around what libraries are and what they demand of their workers. The pandemic has shown that library administrations, local officials, library workers, and their communities have all, in various places across the U.S. expected at one time or another that libraries would reopen as a matter of course, despite the safety risks. Librarians were literally willing to risk their lives–and those of community members–in the name of serving the community, simply because it was so unthinkable that the library, the place where people gather, read, find information, and access the internet to do anything from applying to jobs to applying to government aid, would not be available. This is vocational awe taken to the extreme.

I believe in libraries and in the work they do. I believe that circulating books, paying for database access, and providing internet access is important work–even if it is work that cannot reasonably be safely done during a global pandemic. I do not think that we need expect librarians to become social workers during this time simply to prove their worth. Libraries still have a role in the community as places where people can find reliable information. In a time of crisis, I think libraries should be able to pivot to find ways that they continue to provide that information–without asking their employees to take on new roles they are not trained for and did not sign up for.

Suggesting that library workers continue to provide information about resources instead of handing out those resources themselves may seem uncaring. It may seem to threaten the very existence of libraries, or even to personally attack the desire of library workers to help when needed most. However, we need to resist the pull of vocational awe. We need to ask whether we can, in all fairness, really ask librarians to risk their health and maybe their lives to reopen buildings during a time when it may not be safe to do so. The library is important, yes. But is it more important than the people who work there?

How to Support Your Local Public Library During the Pandemic

8 Ways to Support Your Public Library During the Pandemic

We’ve written a lot on how you can support your local library. But what can you do when the library may be closed? Here are a few ways you can continue to support your public library during the pandemic.

Star Divider

Check out books.

Libraries rely on statistics such as books checked out to justify their existence and ask for more funding. Libraries that are closed to the public, however, may see decreased circulation numbers. Do the library a favor and check out some books via curbside pickup! Or check out some e-books!

Attend a virtual program.

As with books, libraries track their program statistics to justify their existence and ask for more funding. Show what kinds of programs you are interested in by attending some!

Provide feedback.

Does your library have a comment form? A survey? Show some library love by telling the staff what you like about the library and what you would love to see in future! This makes the library feel good because people are engaged, and it gives them something to point towards when writing grant proposals or otherwise trying to demonstrate their value for the community.

Donate.

Libraries, like everyone else, are financially hurting right now. If you can, consider making a monetary donation. You may also consider donating books, but be aware that many libraries are not currently accepting books during the pandemic.

Share programs and updates via social media.

Even if you can’t attend a program, you can help spread awareness about programs and other library services on social media. If you aren’t already, consider following your library on the platform of your choice. Then “like” posts and share them with interested friends to help increase the library’s reach.

Share your library books, crafts, and more with your library on social media.

You don’t just have to share posts made by your library. If you made a pickup craft, asked for a blind book bundle, or participated in a virtual program, consider taking a picture of the results and then tagging your library. They’d probably be happy to share it!

Follow the rules.

If your library is open or partially open, follow any mask or social distancing rules they may have in place. The staff are just trying to keep the community safe and they would prefer to spend their time helping people find resources, rather than arguing with rule breakers. And, if you are sick, stay home! It’s tempting to want to borrow something to keep yourself occupied, but maybe you can send a friend instead?

Be kind!

Again, new library rules and restrictions may be annoying, but the staff on the floor didn’t write them. They are just the unlucky ones who have to enforce them. You may be upset that your library is still closed or that they are requiring masks or that they have browsing time limits. It would help everyone, however, if you could try to accept the rules with grace and, if necessary, complain politely to the relevant channels, rather than yelling at the staff on the floor.

Yes, I Would Pay Higher Taxes for the Library

Library Taxes

Pretty much every year, a representative from one of the towns in my area tries to withdraw his town from the library in order to save money. He always cites the lump sum contributed by the town for their membership because it looks very big (though, in terms of tax contributions, it isn’t.  In fact, these representatives recently voted to spend more on a single road repair than they pay annually toward the library).  However, if he would break the numbers down, people would see that they actually pay less than $20 per person per year to use the library.  That’s less than the price of one hardcover book and less than the price of buying one DVD.

In return for this tiny local tax, patrons receive access to books, movies, music, magazines, newspapers, and research databases.  They gain programs like story time, STEM events, free legal advice, and craft afternoons.  They receive access to early child literacy professionals and research professionals.  And that’s all from paying next to nothing in local taxes (though state and federal taxes also help pay for libraries).  Quite frankly, I would be willing to contribute far more in local tax dollars in order to see my library thrive even more.

Americans tend to complain every time taxes are raised, but I see taxes as a necessary way to provide for the common good and for the community.  And, really, if my tax dollars are working properly, I actually have less need of hoarding more money for myself.  Right now, I could use the money I am not paying in taxes to make personal purchases.  But if I paid more money in taxes to the library, the library could buy more books and provide more services, meaning that I no longer would have to buy those books or purchase those services for myself because they would already be available to me.  I would, in essence, have no more need for my money because everything I would need would already be provided.

And, in the long run, I think that paying higher library taxes would benefit me more than keeping my money for personal purchases.  My personal money can only buy me so many books, classes, craft supplies, etc.  But my tax money combined with the tax money of everyone else in the community buys quite a lot.  For example, I typically read around 100 books a year.  If we assume an average of $20 per book, that’s $2000 worth of books.  Each year, I pay less than $20 to read $2000 worth of books.  And that’s not even counting movie or music rentals, programs, etc.

The reality is, things cost money.  My library has been running on limited funding for about ten years, ever since the recession.  They cannot sustain that forever.  Prices have gone up while funding has remained stagnant, which essentially means they have less money to buy and replace materials, less money for programs, less money for new initiatives.  But, considering how my tax dollars seem to multiply when they go towards the library, I would gladly pay more.  The library is worth it.

The Death of the School Library Is Easily Reversed

Years ago, my school library closed.  The administration declared that no one was using the library and that it had become “obsolete” with the age of the Internet.  The room that was once a library is now a computer lab.  And the administration probably still feels proud that they are being “innovative” and keeping up with modern technology.  The irony, however, is that the school library was only ever as obsolete as the administration and faculty made it.  And, if they had wanted to, they could have saved the school library within a few months.

My school library closed because no students ever used it.  No students used the library because it was primarily open during school hours and briefly after–and no teacher ever seemed to think about bringing their classes to the library.  Students were not allowed out of class for essentially any reason (except, of course, sports), so could not go to the library by themselves.  In short, the school itself prevented students from using the library because they blocked access to it.

Keeping the library open for a half hour or so after school may have seemed like a generous initiative to the administration.  But this was not enough to help because many students have to go directly to extracurricular activities or to catch a bus.  Even if a student had managed to squeeze in a rushed visit, they may have been afraid to check anything out, in case they were unable to go back to return the materials.  The administration ignored the realities of the students when selecting library hours, again effectively preventing the average student from being able to access the library at all.

If students did manage to get to the library, however, they would have been sadly disappointed by the limited and out-dated selection.  The books were decades old and were almost all academic titles–there was no indication that anyone expected students to read for fun.  One visit to the library was enough to convince me that I had no reason to return.  It was clear that the school had neglected the library for years.  And then the administration wondered why students were not utilizing its “resources.”

The school caused the death of the library by restricting student access to it and by choosing not to purchase new or relevant titles for the shelves.  The administration then chose to “solve” this problem by closing the library down completely–and thus showed that its true priorities never included instilling a love of reading in the students.  However, saving the library would have been ridiculously easy.  All the school needed to do was to get teachers to bring classes to the library and to provide them with more opportunities to access the library on their own–before, during, and after school.  Students would have used the library if the faculty had taken the time to convince them it was worth it.

Updating the library collection would have taken more work, but would have also been an attainable goal.  To start, the school could have done a fundraiser, sought out grants, and solicited donations.  The school regularly finds money and does fundraisers to pay for their sports teams.  It would only be fair for the school to find money for a project that would benefit all the students, and not only a select few.

It seems silly that so many school libraries are closing when getting students into the library can be as simple as scheduling a few classroom visits.  And one has to wonder why.  Is it the pressure to teach to the test?  Is there no administrative support?  Or is it something more fundamental?  Denver librarian Julia Torres was recently featured in School Library Journal for asking her teachers if they were not bringing students to the library because they themselves were not reading.  Her direct approach worked.  Asked to reflect on their own reading lives, the teachers were soon bringing their classes back to the library.

Teacher support for the library becomes crucial when we remember that not every child has access to books at home.  Some do not own books.  They may not have transportation to the public library. They may live in book deserts, where print materials are not readily available to sale.  The school library may be one of the only places some children have access to books at all.  So, when students are not given opportunities to check out books at school, they may have nothing to read at all.  Teachers and school administrations need to remember this, and not assume that students will be able to read on their own.

It seems like schools are always firing their librarians and closing their libraries.  But doing so sends a clear message to the students: reading is not important.  Certainly not important enough for schools to bother funding libraries and not important enough for schools to ensure that their libraries stay open to guarantee their students access to books.  But if schools believe they must close their libraries because they have become “obsolete,” they must first ask themselves how they may have been complicit in the library’s demise.

Rethinking How We Discuss the Library

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?

How to Access YA Books While at College

How to Access YA Novels FREE (1)

Leaving home for college does not mean you have to stop reading.  Most college students in the U.S. have access to various library resources in order to obtain the books they enjoy.  Below are some options that may be available to you.

smaller star divider

The College Library

College libraries are typically to be used by students and faculty doing research so they will not, unfortunately, ILL books for you that you are not using for a class.  In the same vein, they may have a children’s book section with YA and MG titles, but they might prefer that these remain on the shelf for individuals doing research.  However, some college libraries do have separate sections or reading rooms that are purposely set aside for reading for entertainment.  You can go to your college library to see what resources they offer.

The Public Library

Many college students remain unaware that they are eligible to receive a library care from the city in which their college is located.  You will likely have to demonstrate that you attend the college or have an address in the city.  Usually this means you have to provide photo ID and a piece of mail showing your address (if it differs from that on your ID).  You can show a piece of mail from your university mail box if you live in a dorm.  Some libraries also ask to see your student ID.  You can call ahead or check the library website to make sure you are prepared before you show up.

If the public library is a fair distance from campus, your best option might be to go there once and obtain the card.  Once you have a library card, you can check out ebooks.  Ebooks return automatically once the loan expires so you never have to worry about walking back to the library when you are busy or worry about accruing fines.  You don’t even need a e-reader.  Kindle has apps for tablets, phones, and computers or laptops.

Library Book Sales

Both university and public libraries tend to hold book sales.  Some libraries even keep a shelf or more of books for sale out all year long.  They may not be entirely free, but these books will be fairly cheap and you can feel good about supporting the library while you shop.

Little Free Libraries

Check if your city has any registered Little Free Libraries.  Some colleges also run book exchanges where you can take or leave a book.  You might be surprised at what you find!

If you sadly find out that your college does not have a book exchange, you can always start one yourself.  All you need is a location, a shelf, a sign, (and, of course, permission from the appropriate offices).  You can start if off by asking for book donations.  Faculty and grad students are always likely to have more books than they want or need.

Free Kindle Books

If you don’t want to go to the library, you can go to Amazon and search for free Kindle books.  Legal and free can’t be beat! And, again, you don’t need an e-reader.  You can download the free Kindle app for your tablet, phone, or laptop.

smaller star divider

More Book REsources

What to Do if You Owe the Library Money

What to do if you owe the library money

Some individuals worry about owing the library money.  Libraries, of course, typically charge minimal overdue fines to ensure that patrons actually bring the materials back on time.  Without a monetary incentive, sadly, some patrons would simply keep the books and DVDs forever.  However, the overdue fines should not discourage individuals from using the library.  If you find yourself owing money, here are some steps you can take.

Return the Materials if Possible

Library fines typically accrue daily until they reach a maximum specified by each institution.  However, once a certain amount of time has passed, the library concludes that the patron has lost the book/is never returning it.  They then charge the patron to replace the materials.  You can lower your fines by bringing the materials back.  Hopefully, your library will deduct the replacement fees and only charge you the overdue fees.

Other libraries are even nicer.  They may charge you overdue fees until you return the materials.  At this point, your fees are all forgiven.  Hurray!

See if You Can Replace the Material Yourself

If you have lost the item and cannot return it, you can see if your library will allow you to replace the item yourself.  The library is probably going to charge you the current price of the item (and maybe an additional fee on top for it to go through processing).  If you can get the book cheaper than its current going price (say at a book sale or a yard sale), then you are saving yourself money.

Pay the Minimum

Most libraries allow patrons to accrue fees until they reach a certain threshold.  At that point, their accounts are frozen until they get their balance under the minimum.  So, if your library freezes your account at $20 and you owe $20, you can pay one cent and continue to use your card until it expires.

Take Advantage of Days of Amnesty

Some libraries offer a day where any materials can be returned and the overdue charges on them will not be collected.  This day will not solve your outstanding balance, but it can help reduce your overall fees.  Or cancel them if you only owe on the items you currently have checked out.

Take Advantage of Food for Fines

Some libraries may allow you to donate food and have a specified amount of fines takes off your account.  If you can get some canned goods on sale to donate, you may end up spending less on the food than you would have to clear your account.

Read Away Your Fines

Another options your library may give you is reading books in order to lower your fines.  And, if they don’t, you can always suggest this program or another type of day of amnesty.  After all, libraries love finding ways to expand access to patrons.

How to Keep Your Library Fines Low

How to Keep Your Library Fines Low

Check Out a Few Items at a Time

Your library may allow you to check out 100 items at a time.  However, this may not be ideal if you are not positive you will be able to return them on time.  After all, a nominal fee applied to 100 items is going to add up fast!  So be realistic and check out what you think you will really be able to read and return in the specified time period, remembering that you may not be able to renew all your items if someone else requests them.

Keep Your Items in a Safe Place

Parents often worry about having their kids check out a bunch of materials because they are aware that three kids checking out ten books apiece could result in 30 books being charged fines.  To try to lower fines, many have a designated library book area where the books must be kept or even read.  This way, they aren’t being charged late fees on books they can’t find at home.

This rule also applies to eating and reading.  Keep liquids or other sticky substances away from your books.  Setting a book on the counter near coffee or water can be disastrous.  And do not place books in a bag or in the car with a water bottle that may leak.  Treat your books with care and you hopefully won’t have to pay a replacement fee!

Don’t DroP your Books and Run

If you borrowed 50 books and return them all at once, you may want to watch the librarian return the items rather than drop them and run.  Once the librarian has finished, ask them to view your account to see if any books are still listed as being checked out.  If so, the librarian should recheck the pile to see if you truly returned it.  If you have not, you know it’s somewhere at home and you can renew it on the spot.

Use the Book drop

Items dropped in the book drop before the library opens are typically backdated to the previous day.  So if your items were due on April 9, if you drop them on April 10 before the book drop is collected, you shouldn’t be charged for being a day late.

Use the Library E-Resources

E-books return themselves once the loan expires, so you never have to worry about accruing fines on them.  Problem solved!

Ask About Vacation Loans

Some libraries will increase the length of a loan if you explain that you are going on vacation and will not be able to return the book within the normal loan period.  This is a good way to stock up on beach reads without worrying about accruing late fees!

Call the Library and Explain Your Situation

Let’s imagine that you have used up all your renewals on an item, but you know you can’t get the book back on time.  Maybe you lost it.  Maybe you are in the hospital.  Or maybe you had to travel for an emergency.  Call the library.  Explain what has happened.  Ask what they can do.  You’ll never know if you don’t ask.

How do you keep your books in order to avoid late fees?

How Libraries Are Expanding Accessibility

How libraries are expanding accessibility

In the U.S., we are fortunate to have a large system of public libraries that provide books, videos, educational materials, and Internet.  The hope is that libraries will provide equal access and opportunities to all.  However, the effort to truly provide equal access is ongoing, and many libraries have become creative in finding ways to bring resources to those who may not be able to walk in to their local library.  Below are some ways that libraries are using to expand access.  If you can’t make it into your library, it’s worth asking about what other services they provide.

Library Branches

Many libraries maintain separate buildings throughout the city so that individuals who live in underprivileged neighborhoods or who live a long distance from the main library can still check out materials.  Though these branches may be smaller, they provide all the services of a regular library and can have materials shipped from the main branch.  Surprisingly, however, I have found that inhabitants of a city sometimes remain unaware that their library maintains branches.

Library Cards for the Homeless

Typically an individual has to provide an address in order to receive a library card.  This is because libraries are maintained by taxpayer dollars.  Individuals who live in cities that do not contribute to the maintenance of the library are supposed to get a library card from their home library.  They can then get a card from another library.  This system, however, poses difficulties for those who do not have an address.  Individuals living in safe houses or in shelters can provide documentation showing this and receive a library card this way.

Library Cards for Businesses

Some people live in one city but work in another.  Some libraries offer cards to employees of local businesses.  So check to see if this is a service available to you and if your business is willing to participate.

The Bookmobile

The Bookmobile brings library books to those who, for whatever reason, cannot make it to the library.  Bookmobiles typically rotate their collections, but they can also take requests for specific materials.  You may even be able to participate in the yearly summer reading program through the Bookmobile.

School Outreach

Librarians schedule school visits in order to encourage literacy, explain what the library offers, and to begin the library registration process.  Some students may have parents who cannot go to the library with them in order to show their proof of residency. Signing up through the school means that the school has already verified their residency.  The student can then show up to the library themselves, with their forms, in order to obtain a card and check out materials.

Pop-Up Libraries

Librarians often do community outreach, leading storytimes or making crafts at various organizations or community festivals.  In these cases, they may talk about library services and programs or they may even bring some books for people to take, in the spirit of the Little Free Library. These pop-up libraries  provide access to books to those who may not be able to walk or drive to the library itself.

Little Free Libraries

Some libraries also maintain Little Free Libraries, allowing people to take or leave a book throughout the city.  This system can benefit those who cannot make it to the library or who prefer to take a book without worrying about having to return it.

Kiosks

Libraries may run kiosks, which are basically vending machines for books.  They can be placed around the city so people can check out books at various locations.

Homebound Services

If you cannot leave your home to go the library to check out or return books, you can inquire to see if your library offers homebound services.  Some libraries have volunteers who bring books to your door, while others have experimented with mailing materials.

E-Resources

E-books are ideal for those who cannot make it to the library to check out or return books.  If you have a laptop or an e-reader, you can check out books from home.  The book then automatically returns itself when the loan expires, so you don’t have to worry about overdue fees.

How is your library getting creative to expand accessibility?

Are Libraries Going Extinct?

To me, the question “Are libraries going extinct” is actually a very silly question.  All I have to do is walk into my public library and I can see that the computers are filled with students doing homework and adults searching for jobs.  Songs and laughter are coming from the story time room.  There is a line at the front desk and returned books are piling up on the counter, the workers being too busy at the moment to check them in.  Still, it’s worth looking at the numbers to settle this debate once and for all.

My local library publishes an annual report breaking down its sources of revenue, its expenses, its circulation numbers, and more.  I imagine that most, if not all, public libraries have such a report that they also make available to the public.  A quick glance at the 2016 report shows me that about 60% of my city’s residents actively hold a card (meaning they renewed it within the past year).  To me, that  number is not shabby, especially considering that some families only use one card for every member.  Over half the city has been to the library in the past  year!

Of course, my library might not be representative of the library usage of the U.S. as a whole.  But the Pew Research Center collects statistics on library usage and attitudes towards libraries every year.  In 2016, they found that 46% of adults had been to the library in the past year and that Millenials (53%) were more likely than any other generation to have been to the library.  Of those 16 and under, 48% had used the library or a bookmobile in the past year.  Though the numbers do not pass the halfway mark, they are hardly indicators that libraries are facing imminent closure.

Still, I won’t deny that I would like to see these numbers climb higher.  After all, libraries provide so much more than books these days and they are especially important in providing access to the Internet and other resources that many take for granted.  (In 2016, 35% of people with an income under $30,000 used the library computers or Internet–a resource many of us can’t imagine living without.)  In thinking about libraries, we have to remember that they are there to serve the community and promote equity.  If people are not using them, perhaps we have to find more effective ways of explaining and promoting the resources they provide.  I have met far too many children AND adults who come to the library believing that they have to pay to borrow materials or even possess a card to walk in the door!

Policy makers and those who control the tax dollars for libraries should also remember this:  Although only 46% of adults may have been to the library in 2016, a large number of library users are there because they cannot afford books, music, DVDs, Internet, or laptops on their own.  They are there because they cannot complete their schoolwork, apply to jobs, learn a language or a job-related skill, get their pay stubs, or connect through social media in any other way.  These people need the library, even if the policy makers don’t.  The Pew Research Center provides more pertinent data:

When using tech resources at the library, most people do research for school or work (61% of library tech users did in the previous 12 months), followed by checking email or sending texts (53%). A share also get health information (38%) and 26% have taken online classes or completed a certification.

Closing the library would put all these patrons at an even greater disadvantage. How would they earn good grades, apply to colleges, apply for health care, or get a job without the Internet?  The reality in today’s world is that they probably could not, at least not as easily or effectively.  And each struggle would make the next one harder.  Poor grades in high school from not being able to do research would mean fewer colleges to choose from.  No Internet to research colleges and financial aid would give someone even fewer opportunities.  Going to a college without the major one wants or to one not highly ranked in the person’s field would then potentially limit their job opportunities.  Ending library access would create a cycle from which it would be increasingly difficult to escape.  And yet some maintain that libraries are no longer needed.

I don’t think the numbers indicate that “no one” uses libraries anymore.  However, even if the numbers were lower, I would not advocate closing libraries but, rather, rethinking them and marketing them more effectively.  They are there to provide services to the community, to promote equity and access.  Their value is ultimately one that can’t be explained only in numbers.