As public librarians head to Indianapolis, Ind., for PLA 2014, there has been progress on the digital front, the economy has held steady, and a series of Pew surveys have reinforced the public’s love of libraries. But in an age of rapidly changing technology and information overload, how are public librarians managing?
In the run up to PLA 2014, we want to get a sense of the issues that public library leaders have their eyes on. So we’re convening a roundtable breakfast discussion during the conference, with publisher Rowman & Littlefield, featuring library leaders from across the nation. We’ll report on that roundtable after PLA, of course. But in this month’s P&L Sheet, we wanted to give you a preview of what we’ll be talking about there—and we want to hear from you ahead of PLA about the issues that are front and center for your library.
Our panelists include Julie Todaro, a library manager with over 35 years of experience in all types of libraries. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book Library Management for the Digital Age: A New Paradigm (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2014). Todaro is currently co-chair of ALA President Barbara Stripling’s Libraries: From Now On summit, which will be held in May at the Library of Congress.
Charlene Rue is the deputy director for collection management at BookOps, the shared technical service collaboration between the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library. She is also co-chair of the RUSA/ALCTS Collection Management in Public Libraries Interest Group.
And Brian Kenney, our regular PW columnist, is director of the White Plains Public Library and a former editorial director of both Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.
The theme of our PLA talk is public library management trends. But before we talk about the challenges of today, and what public libraries might look like in the coming years, let’s talk about your users. What does today’s public library user look like, and who will your users be in, say, 2020?
Julie: I used to think 2020 sounded so far away! But the reality is that many of the 2014 core library user elements will still be user characteristics in 2020. Today’s library users are more technologically astute than [past users], but they still need assistance navigating new hardware and software. Today’s core users have a variety of basic tech skills but still need assistance with the exploration of resources, and they need guides for finding and assessing content or information. And today’s core users are aware of and generally value information but still need to be educated about the role and value of libraries.
Brian: It really is impossible to define a public library user today—and that is what makes the work so fascinating and challenging. I do, however, see users clustering around certain areas or behaviors, some traditional, some new. At White Plains, our users include preschoolers; elementary students and their parents; immigrant families, especially those for whom English is a second language; teens; career seekers and career changers; devoted readers of all ages and devoted viewers of all ages; students and professionals for whom we are their office, at least some of the time; and those who want to learn—whether [they are studying] the English language or are citizenship students or test takers cramming for exams. Our users also include those who want to create—from knitters to 3-D enthusiasts, artists, and writers—as well as entrepreneurs and small business developers, and those who want to just do stuff at the library—for example, the film aficionados who come to all our movies. And sometimes, we just get people who need a safe place to go—perhaps those lacking adequate heating or air conditioning, or the homeless. I think that in 2020, Americans will still look to libraries for assistance with creating better lives. And libraries will still be delivering content, in a variety of formats. And the library building itself—paradoxically—will become more valued than ever as a community center.
Charlene: This is a tough question, because our core users range from children to seniors, encompassing all demographics. I would say that certainly virtual users will make up a large part of our users in 2020, and that the collections will have more digital offerings. But books, and those users who prefer to read books, are not going away as quickly as we may think. How one chooses to access content can be driven by supply and demand, and I think users will be very flexible about content and will have the ability to choose the formats or containers that best suit their needs at the time.
E-books remain a hot topic, although in recent months, the tension between libraries and publishers around e-books appears to have eased. How hard is it to manage the expectations of new digital users—users who will, no doubt, be key to your future—without leaving behind those traditional core constituents whom you serve now?
Brian: Digital is an important part of our future; however, I am not seeing any indicators, among any generation, that readers want to read digital exclusively. And juggling readership in different formats is nothing new for librarians—we’ve been doing it for years with hardcover, trade editions, mass market paperbacks, audio books, downloadable audio, large print, and, yes, e-books. The formats may be new, but the formula is not: it all comes down to watching usage closely, and matching your spending to support patron behavior.
Julie: Based on my observations, I think the e-book tensions have not eased. Look at this way: libraries now have e-books offered on more than 10 different platforms, and there are at least eight to 10 e-readers on the market. Some work with some software and not others. Although hardware and software struggles are not unusual for libraries, libraries must keep up with what I call the post-Christmas rush: no matter the season, holiday, or religion, users are showing up with their new e-readers needing assistance.
Charlene: For me, it is not a question of leaving our core users behind, but of finding ways to bring our users along with us as libraries shift to digital. Libraries are currently providing training and support to users of e-content. Traditionally libraries have promoted and trained users on new and emerging technologies: PCs for public use was an important goal for libraries to spearhead, for example, and, over the years, libraries have become technology hubs in many communities. And the desire for e-books has certainly not cooled. We see more and more users borrowing e-books from our libraries.
Brian mentioned the library buildings—what are some of the key trends and challenges libraries face in managing their spaces?
Charlene: In Brooklyn, there has been more demand for meeting spaces in our libraries, and as we shift to digital, the belief is that we will have smaller physical collections. Many of our new buildings are designed with more space available for the community, allowing expanded programming options for school visits, readings, lectures, community meetings, and training spaces. More and more, the library is seen as a gathering place for the entire community, a sort of town square.
Brian: I think the pressure on library buildings is greater than ever before. As Charlene says, communities want to use their libraries more frequently and in a greater variety of ways. This is great, but it is creating tensions—two in particular. First, nearly every public library I know needs to undergo a renovation, major or minor, to create more public space and more opportunities for people to collaborate and learn, and to make the buildings friendlier and more inviting. This can be a tough sell to local governments and private funders, as it entails a shift in how libraries are perceived. Which brings up the second point: some members of the public retain a romanticized ideal of libraries. They want stacks and that old-book odor, and they aren’t keen on technology. This tension is playing out throughout the country in a number of cities and towns, but it is on clear display in New York City, where proposed changes to the main public library have met resistance from an activist constituency that seems to have one message: don’t change.
Julie: This question alone could literally take me six hours of workshop time to address! But I’ll just boil it down to one key word for libraries when it comes to space: “flexibility.” That means flexibility in how we use space, flexible furniture, and flexible signage or naming of spaces. We must continue to focus on use for individual needs and quiet space, as much as possible, but also we must offer group work spaces and creative spaces using technology, including “maker spaces.” And libraries must also begin to define their existing and digital spaces together, so our usage data is integrated.
At ALA Midwinter in January, ALA’s Alan Inouye noted that libraries used to have a near monopoly on what they did—e.g., lending books, finding information, etc. But increasingly, commercial services like Amazon and Google are competing for library users. How does this affect your staffing issues—both getting and keeping talent in libraries? Does the M.L.S. play a role here?
Julie: We have seen this competition wax and wane in the librarian market space for a while now. A decade ago, we saw a huge exodus of graduates go to work for dot-coms in the boom, only to see a bust bring a lot of them back. So, while this isn’t new, Alan is correct in that I see many applications for general jobs, but for more tech-specific positions—in technical services, or systems—I do see fewer. What isn’t slowing down is the creation of new librarian jobs—for example, “emerging technologies” librarians—and we see many applicants for those positions.
Brian: Yes, libraries have always had competition. There is an ongoing continuum among users of libraries and commercial services. People tap into different channels at different times for different purposes. I think one of the greatest challenges libraries face today is the inability to hire new librarians, because of the economy and the downsizing happening in many libraries. We need young, new librarians. We need them to help us imagine our futures and help us get to that future. As for the M.L.S., I think those staff members with the degree have a unique gift—I expect them to understand the big picture of public libraries. However, I also believe libraries benefit from having a variety of staff members with different backgrounds—including those without M.L.S degrees. Libraries don’t exist to provide work for M.L.S graduates—we exist to provide the best library services possible to our communities. I believe libraries need to be free to hire and promote whomever they need to meet that objective.
Charlene: I agree that librarians have always worked, to some extent, alongside commercial services, whether it is reviewing books or supplying cataloging services. And I see this trend continuing. But I do think the M.L.S plays a valuable role today—perhaps more so than ever. We need well-trained professionals to help evaluate and assess all the information that is exploding around us. But we also need top-quality outreach services to serve niche populations in our communities. Today, we find teachers, social workers, and people with unique language skills who can help us provide support to many populations within our communities. But librarians remain critical to vet information, and to frame critical initiatives that will sustain us, and the communities we serve.
Finally, budgets and politics: we live in a fractious age when government services seem to be viewed suspiciously. How hard is it these days to manage up to city officials, board members, and outside groups who are responsible for your funding, while also reaching out directly to the people with services that enrich their lives—and can influence their votes?
Charlene: It is difficult. Users are most affected by cuts to programs, services, materials buying, and library hours, but city officials and board members have to hear from their constituents when services are cut. There are no winners under these circumstances. But I do believe public libraries are becoming much better at fund-raising and advocacy. Collecting data and telling our story is very important. And identifying additional streams of revenue is mandatory, whether it is setting up a passport service or holding a more traditional gala event. Public libraries can no longer depend on money from government budget allocations to address growing needs.
Julie: Capturing and articulating the value of libraries is a full-time job; however, the profession has increasingly credible, convincing quantitative and qualitative data, including compelling stories and scenarios. Managers can use this data effectively, but only if they actively build relationships with library supporters and decision makers, and then match that data to those relationships where the data can have the most impact.
Brian: I am fortunate to work in a community that values public utilities, including public schools and the library. However, like many libraries, I doubt that mine will ever see significant increases in the support we receive from local government. My library is not alone in this regard—all city agencies are faced with the same situation. Combine this with increased personnel, health, and retirement costs, and, in our case, a tax cap, and we are lucky to have a budget that remains flat. What this means for us, and what this means for many libraries, is that support for innovation is going to have to come from fund-raising. It’s part of the job.