• An Inflection Point for American Public Libraries

    September 30, 2009
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    In the Library with the Lead Pipe is pleased to welcome another guest author, Jean Costello! Jean is a technical project manager for a prominent STM publisher. She is a passionate supporter of public libraries and blogs regularly as The Radical Patron.


    2009 may be an inflection point for public libraries. This year, the deepest recession in U.S. history accelerated their financial trajectory. Following nearly a decade of level or eroding budgets,1 libraries across America were threatened with closure due to lack of funds. Some have closed and most are operating with dramatically reduced budgets. The recession has also increased usage, with citizens flocking to their local libraries to access computers for job search, participate in recreational activities and borrow popular books and DVDs. As the economy improves, the public may remember the value delivered by their public libraries and restore funding. Even if this happens, I believe funding will be insufficient to maintain the viability of our public libraries in the absence of new service offerings, service delivery methods and funding mechanisms.

    The philosophical and material underpinnings of our public library system are solid, however its organizational structure of wholly independent entities funded primarily by local taxes, developed in the mid-nineteenth century,2 is ill-equipped to compete with 21st century companies that provide more focused service offerings. Google, Amazon, and others will remain clear winners in terms of information findability and convenience for the general public. In the community realm, social media companies have disrupted our assumptions, understanding and behavior and their influence will grow without the availability of viable alternatives. And long term success in the entertainment or social service sectors seems tenuous given the array of commercial and government entities competing to support these needs.

    So is there light at the end of this tunnel?

    Circumstances are starting to favor change. The economic crisis has prompted many Americans to re-evaluate and modify their consumption habits.3 Perhaps for the first time, some may find value in sharing rather than owning resources. The Wall Street bailouts of 2008/2009, and this year’s debate over healthcare reform, have foregrounded a national dialogue about the role of private companies and government agencies in American life. For public libraries, a multi-year funding crisis, news of academic institutions replacing their libraries with other facilities4 and a growing interest in mixed-use libraries5 may make the pain of doing nothing greater than the pain of doing something. This is a prerequisite for most organizational change. More importantly, the maturation of key digital technologies enables libraries to deliver new and existing services more efficiently on a large scale.

    The right change

    America desperately needs an institution dedicated solely to the public good, that serves all its citizens equitably, promotes genuine community and fosters a healthy, integrated sense of recreation and self-improvement. Our libraries have done this magnificently for over a hundred years, through good times and bad, in the largest cities and the most rural communities. It’s one of the reasons library service offerings have remained constant for decades and funding secure for even longer.

    I believe we do not need to remake our public libraries; we simply need to shore them up. As we envision change, it seems important to preserve the local autonomy and authenticity that have collectively made these institutions a national treasure. The right change would bolster libraries’ ability to leverage digital technology while increasing use of their physical facilities and surrounding amenities. It would also be advantageous to attract more users with high-end needs, for they would likely spur new service development and be able to deliver more financial and political support than traditional constituencies.

    In my view, the public broadcasting model is a good way to meet these goals. Imagine a single, non-profit entity positioned to attract major funding and provide technology solutions far better than any municipal organization or system can do on its own. Imagine freeing countless public librarians and volunteers from rudimentary tasks to give them more time to collaborate on activities that inform, inspire, and entertain. Imagine libraries providing trusted information and facilitating meaningful dialogues across America. Imagine extending the work of passionate, outstanding librarians beyond their local libraries. A National Public Library (NPL) Corporation to augment the existing public library system would make this possible.

    (Note: As a patron, I can speak to the public-facing aspects of this idea. I’d be interested in comments from library professionals about how the NPL might offer benefits for optimizing library operations, professional development, etc.)

    NPL purpose and funding

    Like its counterparts in radio and television, the NPL would syndicate high-quality programming to independent libraries across the country. Programming in this context would include content as well as digital technology for operations or direct patron services. The NPL would also provide consultation and coordination for fundraising activities.

    Like the public broadcasters, NPL would derive funding from multiple sources including the federal government, charitable donations from corporate sponsors and fees from member libraries. Public libraries are nodes in a national system and it is appropriate that our federal tax dollars support it. Corporate and foundation funding, with appropriate governance to counter undue influence from large donors, is a valid funding source. Through their fees, member libraries would gain access to rich content and services and also secure a stakeholder position in the NPL.

    Programming; digital technology

    Through my work as a library volunteer and advocate, I observe the significant amount of time library staff and volunteers devote to functions that can be optimized through technology. While technological awareness is generally high, people appear thoroughly overwhelmed by the plethora of digital tools and techniques available to them. As a result, even basic tasks such as maintaining lists of supporters who serve on boards and committees, make financial contributions and volunteer can be challenging. Devising communication strategies amidst multiple, dynamic mediums including email, websites, blogs, and Facebook can also be daunting. Many of the library meetings I’ve attended have been as much about contact administration as about new programs or initiatives.

    In terms of patron services, I use a few libraries in Massachusetts that seem to be on-par with their peers nationwide. Despite my esteem and strong support for them, my honest rating for convenience and ease-of-doing business would be about a B- or C. As someone who is employed full-time and needs access outside traditional business hours, is comfortable using internet services, and has other options for accessing information and entertainment, I find my public libraries are not keeping pace with service levels from other providers.

    Within the libraries, information and service are readily available at the front desk. Outside the library, it is more difficult to come by, or impossible, due to limited hours of operation. Some libraries require that I phone or visit to seek staff assistance for straightforward transactions like renewing materials and reserving meeting rooms and museum passes. Each seems to use a different method of posting events on their websites and few let me search for programs or register online. It’s easy to overlook or miss out on some good library programming as a result. None has an integrated electronic newsletter to keep me updated on library news, programs, and new material acquisitions. Information about volunteering and making financial donations is also fragmented; giving to my library is not as convenient as it is with other organizations.

    Here are a few online applications the NPL could rapidly make available to deliver better online services and save staff time as well:

    • A calendar to enable the public to search for events, add events to their personal calendars, and receive email alerts about programs they have registered for or that meet their interests.
    • A reservation system for meeting rooms, museum passes, etc.
    • A volunteer management system to make it easy for people to browse and search for opportunities and sign up to work.
    • A secure payment system so people could make one-time or recurring monetary donations to their library.
    • A contact management system for libraries and friends groups to identify and contact members, donors, etc.
    • An email marketing tool to craft rich, targeted electronic communications to libraries’ multiple constituencies.
    • A survey tool to enable libraries to query users directly about satisfaction with existing services and interest in new services.
    • Mobile applications for these services.

    The benefits of a single entity that develops robust, integrated solutions for these common functions and makes them available to every library are significant. In addition to administrative efficiencies, a standard application suite would save time for library staff who must now evaluate the myriad options for delivering these services, figure out how to implement and support them, process purchase orders and maintain licenses for commercial applications, manage multiple admin accounts, and write training documentation. It is an enormous amount of work, particular for smaller libraries without dedicated technical staff.

    Properly designed and implemented, patrons could receive more information from their libraries and securely process transactions online. One advantage of a uniform application suite is that users would likely promote the services in casual conversation or show others how to use them, as they do now when speaking of Netflix or other popular online services. My experience is that this does not happen today because services differ so widely from one municipal system to another.

    Patron privacy protection is another advantage. Today, many libraries use free or low-cost commercial services on their websites because they do not have the resources to develop or host their own solutions. These services open patrons to unwanted advertising or require that they trade their digital privacy in order to use them. It would be a great public service if libraries uniformly deployed open, non-commercial products that deliver outstanding service and protect patron privacy.

    It would also benefit the public and libraries if these solutions could be shared by other municipal agencies. The public would receive more convenient, consolidated access to their local governments and have their library to thank for it. Libraries might find agencies that currently compete with them for local funding becoming allies if they were using modules of the library’s information system to manage some of their administrative functions.

    As a technology professional, I know solutions for the functionality listed above have matured to the point where integration and deployment by professional software developers would be reasonably straightforward. The NPL could make wise use of existing open source software and cloud computing to reduce cost and lead time for delivering web applications to its members. I am also confident that robust solutions for online access to patron accounts and library catalogs could be developed better through the efforts of an organization staffed and focused on the challenge than the tapestry of public and private organizations currently working to develop solutions.

    Programming; content

    Given the competition from commercial information and entertainment companies, I think a successful strategy for public libraries is to augment existing services with those that commercial firms cannot or will not deliver. NPL can provide enormous value in this area by syndicating the talent and contributions of public librarians throughout the country. A few ideas:

    1. Online subject communities. The NPL could deploy an online community module to facilitate engagement around subject specialties. These communities would feature curated content (something like CurrentCites for the public) and moderated group discussions by an individual librarian or small team of librarians. For a given subject, curators could surface and contextualize the most high-quality, trusted material on a particular subject to people who joined the community. They could initiate and moderate interesting forum discussions by asking perceptive questions and referring participants to other user comments or relevant content. Part of the moderation would involve modeling organized thinking, clear and concise writing, and decorum—qualities that are sorely lacking in social media today. (Recent coverage and commentary on John Wilbank’s keynote at the Society of Scholarly Publishers conference is a fine example of the potential for quality online discussion.) The list of subjects is vast, as librarians know, and who better to help the public explore them?
    2. Collaboration with public broadcasters. PBS and NPR collaborate to provide outstanding content. The Forum Network, which works with public stations and community partners to provide “a diverse range of perspectives on both local and global issues to audiences around the world” is one example. Adding the NPL to this collaboration would strengthen each organization.
    3. Hidden Gems book and film reviews. It is increasingly difficult for good creative works to see the light of day. Consolidation in the publishing, television ,and film industries have diminished product quality; executives no longer feel confident or empowered to take chances on promising but unproven works. Instead, they promote formulaic and derivative works they believe will feed the bottom line.6 Additionally, the loss of independent booksellers and movie houses means that good works receive less exposure. Impartial reviewers with access to publisher catalogs, a mission to find “hidden gems,” and a large national audience might help stem the tide of mediocrity. Many library websites have links to recommended reading lists and reviews from publishers, personalities and ordinary book lovers. Publishing NPL content instead would have these advantages:
      • It would reinforce the library “brand” rather than providing free advertising for others.
      • It would reduce broken links and links to lists that haven’t been maintained. This may seem like a small thing, but in this day and age these really damage an organization’s credibility.
      • It would reinforce the library’s role of guiding users to trusted sources. The public trusts librarians and a well-organized reading list created by librarians would garner attention and respect. (Nancy Pearl hasn’t done too badly, after all). Most people understand that blurbs on book jackets and movie trailers are marketing pieces rather than genuine endorsements. Some may also realize that people manipulate the online ratings systems as a way to market their products.7 Librarians do not face pressure to push product and can offer thoughtful, unbiased opinions about good works of fiction and non-fiction. The reviews would be more valuable if reader comments and questions were moderated and engaged.
    4. An online survival series. For this feature, librarians could research, curate, edit, and present information on up to five important topics, with one topic covered each day of the week. Here again, engagement with reader comments, questions, and content suggestions would enhance this series. Suggested topics include:
      • Information Overload—Digital technology has opened the info floodgates and everyone I know is overwhelmed by the flow. This column would be dedicated to strategies and tools for finding the information you want and filtering out the rest.
      • Commercial Search Services and Online Social Networks—Google, Facebook, and other services offer enormous benefits and can serve the public good, although we continually need reminders of their primary motivations to seek and maximize profit.8 Librarians are well-qualified to provide much-needed public education about the nuances and implications of information organization, storage, and retrieval.
      • Trusted Sources—In 2007, the New York Times reported on “self-interested Wikipedia edits” by corporations and government agencies.9 This Spring, Elsevier was exposed for publishing six fake medical journals.10 In late August, the Washington Post‘s ombudsman highlighted the paper’s penchant for covering the politics rather than the substance of healthcare reform.11 A recent survey reports that 63% of Americans believe news stories are often inaccurate.12 We’ve got a rough-and-tumble infosphere on our hands and the public needs help finding and vetting information sources. Librarians can help.
      • Digital Privacy—people are generally not aware of the vast amount of data collected and stored about them. Industry and our elected officials prefer to keep this topic opaque. Libraries can serve the public good by enhancing the ALA Privacy Revolution and regularly presenting information about it.
    5. Public library spotlight. Public libraries have a rich collective history and most have equally compelling individual histories. Many are architecturally beautiful, interesting, and significant. All are reflections of their community. Given this richness and the sheer number of them, I’m surprised public libraries have not been the subject of more artistic and non-fiction works. Showcasing these fabulous institutions would be a great gift to present and future generations.

    Fundraising consultation and coordination

    Professionals at NPR and PBS have devised a range of techniques for garnering financial support from people who use their services. Public libraries would benefit from the expertise of professional fundraisers rather than relying on the part-time efforts of inexperienced librarians, staff, and volunteers. The public broadcasters have crafted campaigns that seamlessly promote the central organization and independent local affiliates. The same could be done for public libraries.

    The NPL fundraising staff could craft messages that explain the need for funding over and above tax revenue. They could help public libraries articulate value beyond their existing user base. Fundraising consultants could also help establish best practices for involving and promoting local businesses in fundraising campaigns.

    The NPL could also help transform corporate and foundation funding of public libraries. Having a central library organization to receive contributions would be good for donors and libraries. It would be a visible and efficient way for donors to demonstrate support for valued services to a significant number of people. It would also liberate librarians from chasing targeted small-dollar grants so they could focus on adding more direct value for the public. Small grants spread across multiple municipalities, that carry significant administration costs for donor and library, could be replaced with large grants to the NPL. The loss of the small grants would likely be offset by the fundraising consultation and coordination libraries would receive as part of their NPL membership fees. Large donations would support programming to provide more sustainable benefit to a greater number of libraries. The increased impact and efficiency would benefit all parties.

    New local services

    The services listed above will make local library websites more valuable to their communities. Better utilities for calendaring, reservations, volunteer management, etc. will drive some increase in visitation, however new programs and services will be required to maintain the high usage libraries are currently experiencing. The hope is that efficiencies achieved by implementing NPL developed systems and fundraising support would free time for other initiatives that benefit their local communities.

    Library staff and volunteers are best suited to develop programs for their communities; however NPL content and services might provide program ideas or help drive participation. A tie-in with content from public broadcasters, for example, might drive visitation. Libraries could host regular “Hidden Gems” movie nights to provide access to films that don’t typically benefit from a wide release. Or they might host local subject-based clubs to personally discuss or collaboratively research topics from the online communities. Computer classes could be structured around the “Information Overload” series. Or the library might become the locus for civic action around public issues like digital privacy that libraries have brought to public attention.

    Another area where libraries can add unique and outstanding value is by publishing quality information about local issues. This service was provided during a period in the early 20th century described by library historian Lowell Martin as the “Innovative Years.” He writes that “libraries would pull together the facts about an issue—an upcoming election, a public figure, a catastrophe—and reproduce the material for the convenience of curious citizens”.13 Interestingly, Martin credits new technology (the telephone) and the pressure of limited budgets with making library service more reactive. Nearly a hundred years later, these factors may have re-established the need for proactive library services. As with the online features, rich user engagement is a critical success factor. My town election/library/school dream provides further ideas for elements of this form of engagement.

    In conclusion

    Public broadcasting is but one example of how organizations provide information services to leverage efficiencies and strengthen the viability of local enterprises. Many private and public sector firms have adopted it. Visit most realtor websites, for example, and you’ll find content, databases, and utilities provided by a central organization. College alumni and other membership organizations use companies like Harris Connect for tools to “create bonds that increase participation, membership and support.”

    An inflection point is a mathematical term to denote a point where a curve reverses direction. I believe a confluence of social, economic, political, and technological developments lays a foundation for a change in outlook for public libraries. A narrative of obsolescence can become one of rejuvenation and reaffirmation of their mission to provide a record of knowledge, support self-education, and provide wholesome recreation.14 A National Public Library Corporation could promote the ideal of equal access to information by helping ensure that the smallest and poorest communities have access to many of the same resources as the largest and most affluent. It can help make the Library 2.0 vision a reality. It could also add dimension to the concept of a “third place” by strengthening librarians’ role in the Commons through influence in the development of “a set of [information] resources or resource systems, the communities that use them, and the social practices and property regimes for managing the resources.”15

    In their existing form, I believe public libraries supported by a National Public Library Corporation are uniquely positioned to help Americans live richer personal and public lives. Their mission is noble and broad. Their staffs are dedicated and highly educated. They are geographically interspersed, with a strong culture of resource sharing and collaboration already in place. During their early “Innovative Years,” public libraries were trusted institutions of culture and knowledge at a time when information was scarce. An overabundance of information may usher in a second wave of innovation. Let us hope the library community can take advantage of the opportunity.


    Thanks to Brett Bonfield for his support and guidance on this article. Thanks also to Kent Anderson for thought-provoking reflections in the Scholarly Kitchen blog as well as for sharing his thoughts on public libraries with me.


    1 OCLC. (2008). From Awareness to Funding: A study of library support in America. and Agosto, D.E. (2008). Alternative funding for public libraries: Trends, sources, and the heated arguments that surround it. In E. Abels & D.A. Nitecky (Eds.), Influence of Funding on Advances in Librarianship. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Group.

    2 Bostwick, A.E. (1910). The American Public Library. NY: D. Appleton & Co. 1910.

    3Dewan, S. (2009, March 10).
    One U.S. recession casualty: Conspicuous consumption. The New York Times.

    4 Abel, D. (2009, September 4). Welcome to the library. Say goodbye to the books. Boston Globe. and Kelly, J. (2009, July 28). Franklin High library undergoes transformation. Milford Daily News.

    5 Carlson, S. (2009, September 14). Is It a Library? A Student Center? The Athenaeum Opens at Goucher College. Chronicle of Higher Education and Oder, N. (2009, August 4). Milwaukee Begins to “Rethink Libraries for the 21st Century”; Mixed-use facilities are part of the blueprint; community meetings are ongoing. Library Journal.

    6 Fisher, M. (2009, July 9). Give Struggling Authors a Chance. The Atlantic. and (2009, January 3). Blockbuster or Bust: Why struggling publishers will keep placing outrageous bids on new books. Wall Street Journal.

    7 Davis, P. (2009, August 5). Gaming the Rating System. The Scholarly Kitchen.

    8 Waller, V. (2009, September 7). The relationship between public libraries and Google: Too much information. First Monday 14(9).

    9 Hafner, K. (2007, August 19). Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits. The New York Times.

    10 Grant, B. (2009, May 7). Elsevier published 6 fake journals. The Scientist.

    11 Alexander, A. (2009, August 30). A Missing Ingredient in Health-Care Coverage. The Washington Post.

    12 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. (2009, September 13). Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low.

    13 Martin, L. (1998). Enrichment: A History of the Public Library in the United States in the Twentieth Century. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press: p 51.

    14 Ibid, p13.

    15 Helfrich, S. and Haas, J. (2009) The Commons: A New Narrative for Our Times. In Helfrich, S. (Ed.) Who Owns the World? The Rediscovery of the Commons. Berlin: oekom Verlag.

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