Friday, June 26, 2009

Article Note: On the role of public libraries during recessions

Citation for the article:

Rooney-Browne, Christine, "Rising to the Challenge: a Look at the Role of Public Libraries in Times of Recession." Library Review 58.5 (2009): 341-352.

Read via Emerald.

This article pretty much confirms a lot of the anecdotal evidence we have seen about what public libraries do for their communities. The author looks at statistics and anecdotal evidence from libraries in the United States and the United Kingdom. The article is fairly even when it comes to covering both places. Her claim is that there is growing evidence that there is a link between public library use and recessionary times. I don't think this is news. All we have to do is look at the various news accounts about libraries these days to see the evidence. Unless you happen to be the governor of Ohio, in which case you choose to cut library funding in your state just as libraries are needed the most. Maybe the governor needs to read this article to get a clue more than I do.

Some highlights and comments then:

  • "In these challenging economic times, public libraries are emerging as 'recession sanctuaries' (Jackson 2009) because they promote an ethos of borrowing over buying; offering citizens access to innumerable free resources, such as books, newspapers, magazines, information advice, workshops and entertainment" (342). OK, we do have to note it is not really free. Taxes, in one form or another, pay for the libraries. But the services are paid for so the community as a whole can use them. Personally, my only problem with the statement, and similar ones, is that for this to work, the library has to have items you actually want to check out. When it comes to entertainment items, like DVDs, my local public library is pretty pathetic, as in they don't have squat, and I have no compunction about saying it. And yes, I have made the suggestion, and no, nothing seems to be happening. But I disgress, and aside from that, the point about the library being a sanctuary is still valid and significant.
  • The problem with the article, if any, is that it "must rely on anecdotal evidence, available via newspaper websites, forums and blogs to develop an initial understanding of how public libraries are affecting the lives of individuals and communities" (345). It is a problem because this is basically reliance on the many "feel good" stories that local papers seem to publish every so often about their local library, usually around the time when the economy is bad or the library is trying to get extra funding. We do need to work on some more evidence besides "touchy feely, the library is good" stories.
  • "In addition to an increase in traditional services such as book borrowing, libraries are also experiencing huge demand for workshops, seminars, and training sessions targeted at helping users survive the recession" (345). This can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Libraries succeed in spite of their poor funding, doing more with less (as the old cliche goes), so the powers that be figure the libraries can keep going without any additional support. And yet, libraries are not going to turn people away. Helping people is what we do in libraries, so we do what we can with what we've got. However, this often means librarians end up doing the role of job counselors, advisers, and even social workers. Heck, at one point I was considering going back to school to get a social work degree. I may as well given that some of the work I do is more in terms what some social worker might do.
  • Some of the things librarians are doing now, according to the article: help people search for and apply for jobs, create resumes and CVs in electronic forms (and this goes from typing them up on Word to help with how to write them and format them to putting them online), setting up e-mail accounts for communicating with potential employers, and even help prepare people for job interviews. These are things you would think a career placement office or similar would do, and instead, the libraries are doing it. In this economy, we need libraries more than ever, especially if you want to get people to work, or back to work.
  • Of course, politicians don't always think ahead or practically. As I heard in some other place I can't recall, cutting library services now would be like cutting cops' salaries during riots. Research findings, according to the article, find "that when local authorities were faced with cuts in their expenditure, public library investment suffered; book funds were cut, vacant positions were either not replaced or deleted and opening hours were reduced by 60 percent" (347).
At the end of the day, we can point at politicians, like that governor in Ohio, who are willing to cut library services in a time of crisis. But we also have to look at the people who vote those politicians in. We also have to point the finger at the people who whine that their taxes may go up in order to fund the library (or other public service). If you want libraries, you have to pay for them. Libraries are a public good, and we all benefit when they are available. The stories are out there to prove it. And if your politicians are not defending libraries, then it is time for you, the voter to hold them accountable. Be active. Contact your elected officials. Express your opinions in letters to the editor, blogs, forums, etc. Make your voice be heard, and in the end, vote them out of office next time to drive the message of what is important to you and your community. If you stay silent, or you are not willing to put your money and effort where your mouth is, then you deserve what you get (or fail to get).

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