Domestic, Feature, Not-for-Profit, Required - Written by on Sunday, July 24, 2011 18:40 - 0 Comments

Public Libraries: Roadkill for a wired society? Or digital lifelines for the underprivileged?

By melanzane1013 via Flickr

By Derek Reed 

NEW YORK – Like most libraries around the country, the New York Public Library – set in a Romanesque building here on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street in Manhattan – is a cash-strapped time capsule.

Celebrating it’s 100th anniversary this year, the NYPL seems both geriatric and regal at the same time. Tourists flock to see the vestige of another Century. While a few people peruse books in the nooks, desks and halls of the famous architectural landmark, most sit in the cavernous reading room with laptops open and headphones plugged in. Experts say capitalizing on technology rather than fighting it is the best strategy for libraries. 

Despite serving as an information hub for New Yorkers and one of the city’s architectural landmarks, it’s a flagship for a struggling system that faced a 30% budget cut, or $40 million, earlier this year from the City of New York’s 2012 budget. The move was part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to close gaps in federal and state funding to the city, alongside similar cuts to other social services. It would mean the NYPL would have to close 12 branches, operate at reduced hours at some branches and limit access to educational and career resources that neighborhood branches provide.

The American Library Association found that libraries across the country engage in the same fight. The annual Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study surveys libraries across the country to gauge both the demand for their resources and their ability to meet it. It finds that 60 percent of respondent libraries in 2011 reported flat or decreasing budgets, up from 40 percent in the 2009-2010 study. 65 percent expect the trend to continue through 2012. At the same time, library visits and registrations have increased according to the ALA reports.

Library advocates say Internet access has become a near prerequisite for success in today’s world and that libraries are a key link to the Internet for people who could not otherwise afford it. 

While 65 percent of Americans have high-speed Internet access at home,” said Judy Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the ALA. “The remainder—approximately 100 million Americans—rely on institutions such as the public library to provide online access to job search resources, homework assistance, health information and government services.” Of the libraries surveyed, 99.3 percent offer free access to computers and the Internet, and 64.5 percent report that they are they only free provider of that service in their communities. Meanwhile, 70 percent reported an increase in the use of public computer terminals.

Many libraries are also working to adapt even more to the digital age, with 67.2 percent now offering access to e-books and some even fueling technological innovations of their own. The NYPL, for example, developed an iPad app which lets users explore items from the library’s stacks (the current edition includes documents, images, and videos from the 1939-1940 World’s Fair). A library in Yucatan, Mexico is working on a project to preserve the Mayan language via a digital multimedia library collection. 40% of the state’s people are Mayan, but only 5% of them can read Mayan, and information in their language is hard to find.

Some libraries are rolling out microchip scanning technology that lets users check books in and out by themselves, without the aid of a librarian. This could be huge, in terms of eliminating some of the need for staffing (that’s what the majority of libraries’ budgets go to, anyway) and slimming down budgets without sacrificing the services offered. The Contra Costa County Library in California received a grant to develop a mobile platform compatible with QR (Quick Response) code technologies. It currently has posters inside county buses that allow for direct access to downloadable audiobooks and e-books on smart phones. The Santa Clara County Library in California is expanding its reference services with the addition of embedded chat in the online library catalog. The chat pops up when a user gets zero results, starting a chat with a librarian for modifying the search. The Library’s e-reference (chat, e-mail, text) increased 33.6 percent in FY-2010 over the previous year’s e-reference. Traditional reference (in person and by phone) declined 3.6 percent during the same period. 

Steel and commodities baron Andrew Carnegie, the Bill Gates of his day, donated $40 million of 19th Century money, a bulk of his life savings, to build nearly 1,700 libraries around America. He believed the public library was an innovation that opened worlds of education to the underprivileged. What would he say if he saw Carnegie library branches in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., setting up rows of computers to keep people visiting? How would he respond to paint chipping from the vaulted library ceilings as the institutions he created are too cash poor to afford maintenance costs?

But despite this, libraries’ funding is not keeping pace with demand for technological access, and they are being forced either to scale back services or the amount of hours those services are offered. Oftentimes, they have to choose both. This year, 16 percent of libraries reported decreased operating hours, up from 4.5 percent only two years ago. Another 76 percent said they don’t have enough public computers to meet demand, either part or all the time.

To celebrate its 100th Anniversary, the NYPL planned a gala and installed a centennial exhibition, but the mayor’s budget brought bad news to the party. Had the NYPL’s proposed budget cut passed, it would’ve had to move to a model where its branches were open an average of four days per week (down from the current average of six). 

The NYPL urged residents to write their congressmen and record web-cam videos explaining why their libraries were important to them. People wrote nearly 140,000 letters and raising more than $70,000. In the Bronx, one branch alone stirred up more than 11,000 letters.

On June 29, the mayor’s office and the city council officially restored $36.7 million of the proposed cut to the library’s budget.

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