England

US libraries seeking 21st Century model

Image copyright Telestory

How might libraries best serve their communities? It was a question posed by a BBC investigation into the scale of library cuts across the UK. In the following piece, we look to the US for answers.

It is a striking image. Surrounded by books and cuddly toys, a grandparent holds a baby in front of a video camera.

On screen, the father's prison routine is broken up with a cherished glimpse of the new arrival.

Rather than a meeting facilitated by the justice system, this unusual video conference has been organised by the public library service.

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It seems a long way from the traditional notions of how a library should serve its community. And not everybody will agree that public money is being spent wisely.

But it is indicative of how libraries in the US realise they must innovate if they are to remain relevant in the 21st Century.

Nick Higgins, the director of outreach services, said there were 105,000 children in New York state with a parent in prison.

Image copyright Brooklyn Library

"It may seem like a rare space for a public library to be in, but if we want to secure our future as an institution we must continue to find ways to become key stakeholders in conversations on solutions to our communities' most pressing needs," he said.

"Good public libraries are anchors in their communities, adept at creatively and thoughtfully responding to and anticipating the diverse needs found there."

The Telestory also runs Daddy and Me literary classes in prisons, and hosts family days where children come in and read books with their parents and make recordings.

It is one of 14 projects funded by the Knight Foundation, which laid down the gauntlet to libraries earlier this year to come up with new ideas.

Image copyright Brooklyn Library
Image copyright Brooklyn Library
Image copyright Telestory

There is no doubt libraries face a moment of unprecedented change. When BBC News reported the scale of cuts to UK libraries earlier this year, it sparked a fierce debate.

From some quarters, there was outrage at the scale of the cuts, but others just shrugged. What is the point of libraries, they argued, when we can download books straight to our smartphones and access wi-fi in every coffee shop?

The Knight Foundation is seeking to answer that question in new ways.

So in Texas, high school students are taking courses in digital media and journalism at Dallas Public Library. And in Philadelphia, librarians are helping to open up access to civic data.

Another intriguing project seeks to bring together librarians and editors of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

They are not natural bedfellows.


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Wiki, the internet giant that accounts for more than 15% of web traffic, has been criticised by professionals, who question its accuracy as a reference source.

There is a systemic bias towards certain topics, they argue, and a lack of diversity among its group of volunteer editors. In the US, for example, an estimated 80% of contributors are male.

Image copyright Wikipedia Commons

And yet the site is a logical starting point for many people embarking on research, containing more than 40 million articles in 250 different languages.

Sharon Streams, a director at OCLC, which has been chosen to run the project, said it was time librarians went beyond their "four walls".

"Wikipedia is one of the most used websites in the entire world, so libraries definitely need to be there," she said.

"It will be an opportunity for Wikipedians and library staff to get to know each other as human beings. The Wikipedia community has a reputation for being a bit crusty and intimidating to newbies, so this will give them a chance to forge more positive social connections."

The partnership will work both ways. Librarians will learn how to create and update content so it meets their standards, and Wiki users will be encouraged to use libraries to help inform their content.

Image copyright Wikipedia Commons

Ms Streams said: "The general public has latched on to a very backward facing perception of the library as a building full of dusty books, which is understandably not a very compelling image of a relevant, vibrant institution.

"And frankly, the media has latched on to and reinforced the old-fashioned and outdated view of what libraries are, which means the field is also doing a poor job of telling a better and new story to the folks who could do so much to help amplify how essential libraries are in today's world."

Resources created during the project will be published online.

But despite this push towards innovation, some believe libraries should not stray too far from their primary purpose.

Prof Ajit Pyati, from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, said: "A cornerstone of the library profession in the information age is the belief that libraries are essential institutions in providing information access, particularly for the marginalized.

"While this may be true, some argue that the most profound role of public libraries is their promotion of reading.

"This type of sentiment may seem old-fashioned in an information age, but I do find some truth in this argument, particularly since public libraries promote leisure reading and learning in spaces that are inclusive of everyone."


Analysis - Have US libraries seen cuts?

Between 2008 and 2013, the number of public libraries dropped from 9,221 to 9,091, according to the latest data available from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

That is a drop of 1.4%, compared to the 8% of service closure points in the UK between 2010 and 2015.

And there were 145,240 full-time paid staff in US libraries in 2008, which fell to 137,200 in 2013, a fall of 5.5% - well below the 25% reduction in British library staff.

But the American Library Association said the data on public library closures should be treated with caution, as the IMLS had revised how it counted libraries.

Prof Pyati said libraries were "perpetually facing budget crises", but he said any attempt to close services was met with "strong resistance".

In contrast to the UK, there has not been an influx of volunteers to the sector. Nevertheless, Prof Pyati says there has been "a steady erosion of professionalism in the field" with lower-paid library staff taking on duties usually reserved for professionals.

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