A City with a Great Library is a Great City

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By Penny Font

Originally appeared September 21, 2010 in Baton Rouge Business Report.

Giovanni Tairov wasn’t the least bit upset by what he saw one late-summer morning when he walked into the main branch of the Livingston Parish Library.

Between the stacks and next to the computers, a rock band—complete with guitarist and drummer—was jamming, and children were dancing all over the place.

It is, after all, a 21st-century library.

Bespectacled old librarians shushing patrons who dare to open their mouths? Gone. Electric typewriters as cutting-edge technology? Yeah, right. Overstuffed card catalog? It’s digital now. Books that are only available in paper form? So last decade. Last place you’d expect to see a rock band? Not anymore.

There are those people who will tell you that these stuffy, musty public institutions surely are in their final days. There are those who ask, “Why frivolously waste $19 million making the downtown Baton Rouge branch bigger?”

The same people are convinced that the Internet [led by Google] thrust a sword into the gut of libraries and that iPad and Kindle will strangle the last breath out of them. After all, e-books are predicted to constitute 40% of all book sales in as little as three to four years. Heck, even Barnes & Noble has put itself up for sale.

In reality, public library parking lots are packed. Patrons’ usage has accelerated for the better part of a decade and is setting new records—particularly during the recession, according to separate studies by the American Library Association and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Nationwide, visits to public libraries last year totaled 1.4 billion, or nearly five per capita. That’s up 17% from two years ago.

Consider Livingston Parish. Voters taxed themselves to build four new branches that opened three years ago. Renovation of another in the town of Livingston begins in November.

As recently as this summer, 10,000 visitors a week walked through parish library doors, and 4,300 children took part in a reading program, up 13% from last year.

In 2009, nearly 17,000 people attended library programs, and visitors checked out nearly half a million items and used the computers 73,311 times. That’s in a parish with an estimated population of 123,326.

“It’s impressive,” says Tairov, director of the Livingston Parish Library. “Many small businesses in our community would do or die to see that many customers coming through their doors and using their products.”

An evolution

So how is it that libraries manage to remain relevant in an era when research is as close as the home computer and books and magazines can be downloaded in mere seconds?

The phenomenon is attributable to a mixture of evolution and recession.

More than a decade ago, libraries were mainly bastions of information, quiet places where the studious toiled away in the stacks and carrels. Sure, kids could check out books, but they’d better be seen and not heard.

But the ready availability of information through technology has forced libraries to adapt. There’s a new dominant model now: library as community center—less about books, more about people.

These days, those centers boast coffee houses and cafés. Puppet shows. Concerts. Lectures. Art galleries. Clubs. Wi-Fi. Language courses. Computer training. Job search assistance. Meeting rooms. Tutoring. Workforce training. Tax assistance. Movies. Yoga classes. Parties with authors. Legal advice. Online databases. And you can, of course, still check out books—or download them. All of it is free.

Suzanne M. Stauffer, an assistant professor in the LSU School of Library and Information Science, says libraries have always been about more than just providing information, but they are indeed rediscovering their historic role as community centers.

“There is a resurgence of this desire for community, and we’re all looking for a place to come together,” she says. “The library is neutral. It’s not political; it’s not religious; it’s not commercial. Everybody can come and use it; it doesn’t matter what your philosophy is. It’s a place you can go and have your educational, informational and recreational needs met.”

Robert Ward, an associate professor in the LSU School of Library and Information Science, calls the concept an “information commons” approach.

“The library is a community center where you can engage in knowledge not only by getting materials and information, but also meet other people and groups and engage in discussions,” he says. “It’s more intellectual community center than just repository of books.”

In recent years, the recession apparently has driven more patrons to libraries. Rather than spend $30 on a new release from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Borders, they borrow it at no cost. Instead of forking over rental fees at Blockbuster or Netflix, they check out DVDs for free. Students receive after-school tutoring—again, for free. And the little ones can be entertained at Storytime or use the Wii or Playstation, without parents’ spending hundreds of dollars on hardware and software.

Libraries also are among the few places people can go for help finding employment in tough times. Some 85% of all job applications are now done online, and those who suddenly find themselves on the market with no online résumé and no computer skills to create one can find help at a library.

A growing number of libraries also offer job training through free daily courses in computer, foreign language and other skills. The East Baton Rouge Parish Public Library has a Career Center in its River Center Branch that provides one-on-one assistance from a career coach as well as résumé assistance.

Success stories

Some of the most successful libraries nationwide are those that embrace this community-center concept.

The Salt Lake City Public Library’s main library is cited frequently as one of the best in the nation. The five-story, 240,000-square-foot facility boasts a public plaza with shops and a café, a 300-seat auditorium and a rooftop garden with a 360-degree view of the Salt Lake Valley. Inside The Children’s Library is Grandmother’s Attic—complete with a trunk of dress-up clothes—and a Crystal Cave.

The library makes available reading materials in 25 languages, and its technology center and training lab offer 42 computer stations, with another 121 throughout the building. There are classes held in everything from yoga and whole-body laughter to ballroom dancing and digital photography.

Seattle has had a downtown public library since 1891. Renowned architect Rem Koolhaas designed its latest home—a unique geometric building that opened in 2004. It was part of a $196.4 million bond measure voters approved to rebuild the entire library system.

The library initiated the Seattle Reads program, which promotes a particular book, encouraging everyone in the city to read it. Other libraries across the country have adopted similar programs.
Baton Rouge’s One Book One Community program, which began in 2006, provides readers with a shared experience that leads to open dialogue. Two books are chosen each year, and community partners collaborate on interesting programming and events.

National Book Award winners frequent Seattle’s auditorium for lectures, although some have proven so popular, their event must be moved to a larger location.

“Libraries are so different from when we used to ask for a book [and] they’d go behind a shelf and give it to you,” says Andra Anderson, communications director for the Seattle Public Library. “More and more, libraries are a community builder.”

The system is in the midst of a strategic planning process to determine what patrons expect in the future. Given that 33,000 people have taken part in the survey so far, libraries clearly play a critical role in the Seattle community.

A period of recession might not seem a propitious time to consider building a new library. Yet the St. Paul Public Library is in the process of doing just that, looking to a mix of public and private funding to make it happen.

This year, it began offering a pilot program called Mobile Workplaces—a traveling training lab to provide workforce skill-building classes in three languages.

“The instructors go out into the community with laptops,” spokeswoman Sheree Savage says. “Wherever there is electricity and a table and chairs, we can provide training. Many of these people haven’t even had the opportunity to touch a computer. We’re helping them to be more prepared for the workforce.”

In Nashville, Tenn., the library’s motto is this: “A city with a great library is a great city.” To that end, the main branch is an elegant modern classical building in the heart of downtown, with Ionic columns, marble floors, elegant staircases and a rooftop patio. Patrons enjoy concerts in the courtyard on Tuesdays from mid-August through early October and regular exhibits in its two art galleries year-round.

But the Nashville library also is known for its next-generation high-tech accessibility, with extensive online databases, podcasts to accompany art exhibits, an audiobooks direct-to-phone service and even its own mobile app to facilitate access to library services for patrons on the go.

The Hennepin County Library, which merged with the Minneapolis Public Library in January 2008, boasted 5.6 million in-person visits to its combined 41 libraries last year. Some 17 million books and other items were checked out, and its website got 15.6 million visits. Librarians answered more than 900,000 reference questions.

The library offers a range of classes daily, from a computer class in Somali to an Anime Manga Club for teens to small-business consultations. It also opened two new branches this year.

“I’ve always thought of the library as a destination not just for books, but experiences,” Livingston Parish’s Tairov says. “You know how it is when children go to Disneyland. I’d like us to be the same way. When they go and have fun, and have a great emotional experience, it stays with them through the years.”

The local scene

Many of those same services are available in south Louisiana’s libraries.

Last year, the East Baton Rouge Parish Library had 2.1 million visits from patrons—a number Director David Farrar calls “just through the roof.” The library leads the state in visitor counts, database usage and circulation.

The library has 450 computers available to the public with free Internet and complete suites of Microsoft access. Every branch has Wi-Fi everywhere and soon will be checking out laptops.

The East Baton Rouge Library also hosted 2,372 meetings last year—from homeowner associations to Scout troops—and 4,500 programs that attracted 143,000 people. Librarians answered 800,000 reference questions by phone, e-mail, text, chat and in person. Some 30% of the items checked out were DVD rentals and audiobooks. Users accessed the library from home more than 1 million times.

“It’s astronomical how many people come through the doors of this library system,” Farrar says.

“We are a cultural center, an entertainment center, a social center, an electronic information access center, a meeting place, a lifelong learning center and a business center, just to name a few. We are comfortable community centers with a cutting-edge opportunity to access information.”

The library is in the process of planning for public input on the new Main Branch and deciding whether to renovate or rebuild the River Center Branch. A decision on the latter is expected in the next few months.

The down side

Ironically, at a time when libraries are emerging as a critical community need, many are in danger of losing funding. So far, south Louisiana has resisted this trend.

But 24 states reported cuts in state and local funding for public libraries this year—half of them more than 11%, according to the American Library Association. In 2009, 15% reduced their hours of operation.

The Seattle Public Library recently closed all of its locations for seven days after the city cut its budget by $3 million. Its 650 employees weren’t paid during that week. The library also reduced operating hours at 15 branches and cut management and administration, the book budget and staff training.

Charlotte, a city that has enjoyed years of growth and prosperity—thanks in part to Bank of America and Wachovia—has been forced to cut its library hours, close three of 24 branches and lay off workers while asking volunteers to help keep branches running.

“Libraries are experiencing record use. Demand for services has hit historic levels—it’s really overwhelming in a way,” Ward says. “At the same time, the funding crisis for local government has impacted them hard. I haven’t seen that level of impact in Louisiana, but nationally, it’s been pretty severe.”

The 1930s saw a similar phenomenon, Ward says, and it took a decade for libraries to recover.
Staying current with ever-changing technology compounds the challenge of budget cuts. If you think it’s expensive to keep up with the latest mobile phone, imagine the work involved in libraries’ efforts to stay on the cutting edge.

And technology is a very big part of that new model. Today, 82% of libraries now provide wireless service—up from just 54% three years ago. In two-thirds of cases, libraries are the only source of free Internet service in their communities.

Many libraries across the country also offer electronic books to loan via some—but not all—e-readers. The Livingston Parish Library recently purchased 1,600 e-books; the East Baton Rouge Parish Library also offers e-books through Overdrive and music through Freegal.

Carol Barry, an associate professor in the LSU School of Library and Information Science, notes that library students today must learn a lot more than just the Dewey Decimal System. They also need to know how to design websites, databases and interfaces for users, among other things.

“Before the 1960s, it was hard to imagine a more stable environment than libraries,” Barry says.

“They didn’t change much. Now the technology keeps changing, and we all have to be able to keep up with that. Librarians have to have the whole ability to cope with an environment that is constantly changing now.”