The Norman Transcript

October 14, 2008

Today's public library

By Anne Masters

In the past week, I've visited with Norman citizens to discuss expanded public library service in our community. Our conversations have included enthusiasm for new possibilities. Often, however, I heard the statement, "Today's public library is much different than the library I grew up with."

I want to address this sentiment because beyond the nostalgia -- missing the look, smell and feel of your childhood library -- is something important. As American citizens, we often don't consider the silent gears that move forward the powerful machinery of democracy -- public schools and libraries in particular.

I believe that the reasons public libraries continue to enjoy public support are the same today as they were more than 100 years ago. In order for democracies to thrive, citizens must have free access to information, education, cultural and community history, humanitarian ideals, and community pride.

Why were American public libraries established in the 19th century? Are their reasons still valid today? What is the role of the public library in the 21st century? These are all critical questions to consider, particularly as we consider the future of our own public library.

According to Sidney Ditzio in "Arsenals of a Democratic Culture," the growth of public libraries was more rapid in the United States than in England because the working man in America was better educated, in general, than his English counterpart. In the U.S. there was an expectation of political participation and economic equity that made education more compelling.

Here are some of the reasons that public libraries were embraced by American communities in the late 19th century. Decide for yourself if they are still valid today.

· Democracy requires informed voters. The idea of participation by all citizens in decision making meant the country needed an informed populace.

· Democracy calls for equality of educational and economic opportunity. Free sources of knowledge were required to support these democratic beliefs.

· Americans wanted access to books of local and personal interest. Our citizens took pride in the literature of America and wanted to have access to it and to preserve it.

· Humanitarian ideals meant a desire to lift up the underprivileged. Libraries were seen as a way to do that by offering an opportunity for education to the common man.

· The idea of self-education emerged. In the 19th century, for the first time, books were viewed as an effective means of technical education. This led to the public library as "the people's university."

· An element of civic pride also came into play. A community took pride in its public library and this encouraged the public's willingness to invest in it.

It's easy to forget that public libraries have been with us for a short time, not much more than 100 years. Before public libraries, there were personal and subscription libraries, yesterday's version of Barnes and Noble and Borders. Public support for libraries was a new concept at the turn of the last century, but it was an idea to which citizens quickly adapted.

In addition to public support, public library development benefited from philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie, in particular, saw the potential of the public library to be the center of learning in every community. He offered to build libraries if communities would contribute land, furnish money for annual maintenance, and exercise governance and oversight. Between 1881 and 1917, Carnegie invested what today would amount to $3 billion to build 1,689 libraries.

Today, nearly 90 percent of library funding comes from local public dollars. Oklahoma's public libraries are primarily organized as city libraries (88.4 percent). Of the rest, 6.3 percent are multi-county (Pioneer Library System is one of six multi-county systems) and 4.5 percent are county (Oklahoma County and Tulsa).

So, what is the return on your investment? What are your expectations for the public library?

In 2006, the Americans for Libraries Council partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to publish "Long Overdue," a report on research conducted by the nonpartisan agency Public Agenda. Researchers found when people think about their expectations of libraries today, they generally think about traditional services: remaining free of charge; providing plenty of current books for children plus numerous reference materials; staffing with friendly, knowledgeable librarians; offering convenient hours and special programs for children; maintaining the facility and organizing easy self-service.

But "Long Overdue" said the public expects more than the traditional. In our information age, libraries are viewed as key players in the technological future and not merely the "information resource of last resort." Surprisingly, advanced computer users and families with higher income are even more likely to use public libraries and the technology services they offer than others.

"Long Overdue" outlines four areas of opportunity for public libraries that resonate most with the public: providing stronger services for teens; helping address illiteracy and poor reading skills among adults; affording ready access to information about government services; and ensuring even greater access to computers for all. (It is crucial that public libraries step up and serve as a source for government information today because there are fewer and fewer print sources of government information.)

The PEW Internet and American Life Project, published in 2007, found that young adults ages 18-29 are the heaviest users of libraries among those users who consult multiple information sources. They also are the most likely library visitors for any purpose. This surprising but encouraging finding is certainly true in the Norman Public Library.

The Urban Libraries Council recently published "Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development." They said public libraries serve their cities by improving early literacy and school readiness through library programs and collections; building workforce participation through adult literacy and computer education; serving the information needs of small businesses; and through their presence, having a positive impact on downtowns, commercial areas and neighborhoods.

Others said that today's public library must be a destination, a gathering place, a source of community pride. To appeal to today's library customer the public library must provide an "experience," add value to service, merchandise the collection and provide flexible spaces for events, study and the use of technology. Let's be sure to add the provision of quiet adult spaces.

Futurist Thomas Frey spoke as part of the Pioneer Library System's Staff Day in 2007. He predicts that libraries that thrive in the future will embrace new information technologies; preserve the memories of their communities; experiment with creative spaces like office space for entrepreneurs, recording studios, and more; and continually survey and respond to customer and community needs. He even suggests that we should be open 24 hours a day and, in fact, our virtual library is: www.justsoyouknow.us.

Certainly, today's public library delivery looks different, although books are still the "library brand." Pioneer's mission is "to connect you to the joy of reading and information for lifelong learning." In context with the history of the public library and its exciting future, is that an appropriate expression of the public library's role? We want to know. Please join this conversation.

Anne Masters is director of the Pioneer Library System.