Archive for the ‘President Roosevelt’ Category

Watching the CBS evening news last night, I was pleased to hear President-elect Obama refer to library closures as an example of how this economic downturn is hurting communities in his remarks to the National Governors Association.

“Jobs are being cut,” he said. “Programs for the needy are at risk. Libraries are being closed. Historic sites are being closed.”

The American Library Association didn’t miss a beat and immediatly applauded him for “recognizing the effect library closings have on communities” in the Washington Office’s blog, District Dispatch. The blog cites library contributions to the economic health of communities. For example:

  • 73 percent of libraries nationwide report that they are the only provider of free Internet access in their communities
  • that number is even higher in rural communities where 83 percent of libraries are the only free provider
  • Libraries offer job search workshop, skill development, small business development classes, and technology training.

If you don’t think Internet service is vital to jobs, consider this. Last year (according to Camila Alire, ALA President) only 40 of the top 100 U.S. retailers accepted paper applications completed at the store. Next time you are in Home Depot, ask for an application and you’ll be directed to a computer kiosk. Suppose you are an ace fork lift driver – perfect for the job they’ve advertised, but you are new to computers. Imagine how much easier it would be to have a trained librarian guide you through the online application process at the library. Actually, without computer skills or a librarian to help you conduct an online job search, you probably wouldn’t even know about that fork lift driving job since Home Depot only takes applications online and doesn’t advertise.

Libraries make other economic contributions to their communities. People who are feeling the pinch in their pocketbook are saving money by using their library. The LA Times reports today that while bookstores and publishing companies are suffering losses and sluggish sales, library circulation is up over last year – 12% in San Francisco, and a whopping 35% in Chicago! Books and DVD’s are flying off the shelf in libraries across the country. When commercial entertainment becomes too expensive for folks, the library is your place to go. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch to argue that libraries may be a safety valve for communities facing plant closures and the pressure of disappearing 401k plans.

It wasn’t lost on me that the LA Times article about library usage was posted in their Penny Wise section, “a street-level look at how Southern Californians are stretching their dollars in a sputtering economy.” (I also appreciated that one avid library user cited in the article is a television journalist. Get your news at the library!)

But the article goes on to report an increase in the number of libraries under threat of closure because… “Since they’re not selling anything, libraries don’t profit directly from the increased traffic.” Ironic, ain’t it. When the economy goes to pot, libraries are more necessary and valued and USED by the public, but they still end up on the chopping block.

But what if, instead of looking at library closures as a money-saving tactic, we looked to libraries as a tool against economic woes? What if we poured more money into libraries and let librarians do what they are good at: helping communities work through difficult times?

For example, back to my earlier reference to a community facing plant closures…Libraries could provide information about other industries and local jobs. They could be the convener of community forums where the public could work together to identify community assets and develop strategies for working through the tough times together (in the short-term) and a new vision for the community (for the long-term.) And they could be the convener of community resources helping match those in need with those able to provide.

These are not just hypothetical roles. Within ALA, hundreds of librarians have come together to form a membership initiative group called, “Libraries Foster Civic Engagement”. This committee is in the process of compiling the results of a survey of what libraries are doing to foster civic engagement, but here’s a sampling:

  • A library in a community with a rich history is working to bring the railroad depot back as a historical museum that will attract tourists.
  • A library in school district where the community was divided over how to educate its children developed a discussion guide and brought people from all sides of the issue together to share their concerns.
  • Another library brought in federal, state and county agencies to answer questions from veterans and families members of service men and women who are currently deployed. They also provided free blood pressure screening and backpacks (donated by a local insurance company) filled with health information.

These are important contributions in rich times. They are crucial in times of economic stress and personal distress.

Bill Gates gets it. And he knows a thing or two about money – at least he has a lot of it and knows how to give it away wisely. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) after ICMA released a report demonstrating that “libraries are not being used to strategically address community needs.” They recently announced a joint project with to provide $500,000 in Public Library Innovation Grants to multiply innovative library practices and to demonstrate the value of public libraries in supporting sustainable communities. Hey, I like the sound of sustainable communities!

(The grant is due January 9, 2009, which should not be a problem since so many of us are curtailing our holidays anyway!)

From the ICMA site (emphasis mine!):

Public libraries can play a dynamic role in communities. Once an institution devoted to book circulation, today’s libraries provide citizens and businesses with Internet connectivity, career development, childhood literacy, immigration assistance, and other important services. However, many libraries across the country are struggling to take on a larger role in meeting their community’s needs and require increased support from their city or county administrator.

So, here are some possible program areas ICMA suggests that libraries and communities could address:

  • Creating a sustainable community
  • Workforce development
  • Emergency management and public safety
  • Health and active living
  • Immigration and language
  • Education
  • Youth and teen services
  • Civic engagement, community building

Surely I’m not the only one who thinks that these sound like smart things to do in communities that are hurting. (Note to all librarians in Michigan: STOP READING THIS BLOG AND DOWNLOAD THE APPLICATION NOW!)

President Roosevelt got it. Much of our country’s infrastructure can be attributed to the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration. “Almost every community in America has a park, bridge or school constructed by the WPA.”

But did you also know that in addition to putting men to work building bridges, dams, parks, roads, schools, and health clinics, the WPA also put women to work as librarians.

One such program was the Book Women of Eastern Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. Yep, libraries on horseback! The WPA funded the salaries for librarians and they scrapped together reading material from magazine clippings, recipes and newspaper articles. These “cobbled together scrapbooks” became so popular that patrons made their own scrapbooks. Librarians circulated (literally) this homemade reading material featuring favorite recipes, family histories, sewing patterns and child-rearing advice from household to household. These patrons were early self-publishers and the librarians traveling to remote households were the community connections. Think (fill in your favorite social networking site) Twitter on horseback.

On a side note: For those who have the mistaken notion of the mild-mannered librarian, consider this. These women traveled 50-80 miles a week on horse or mule through rocky creekbeds, muddy footpaths and steep cliffs to deliver books to homes without access to reading materials. If the house was too remote to get to on horseback, they walked or rowed as the situation demanded! (See full story by the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives.)

The following is a description of the Packhorse Libraries by Mr. Clarence Bingham of the Louisville Public Library in a letter to Marguerite Smith Westerfield quoted as part of her master’s thesis in 1938 entitled “A Study of the Services of the Kentucky Library Commission”:

“…Each one (Packhorse Library) is organized with a librarian who stays in the headquarters to collect, classify, and mend the books and magazines; and four to six carriers who travel up the mountain trails to carry these books and magazines to lonely mountain cabins and isolated schools.

AND they brought in money to increase their services! The Penny Fund Plan which called on every PTA member in KY to donate a penny to the book fund increased the book collection and funded eight new pack horse libraries.

Now I know that there are New Deal skeptics out there. And I know that we have to put matters into context. Sure, things are different today than they were in the ’30’s. I’ll just have to let smarter people who get Nobel Prizes for Economics and write for the NY Times address those questions as Paul Krugman did on November 10. I’m not an economist. Nor am I an historian so I am not in any position to advocate a Roosevelt-style economic stimulus.

But one thing I will advocate without reserve. Libraries are good investments especially when the economy is bad. They can help put people to work. They can provide access to information unavailable any other place. They can help communities come together to work out solutions. They can give people a place for escape from their economic trials. They can be centers for social events. They can build civic capacity. They can support civic discourse during a stressful time. They can hold communities together.

But let me recap the current narrative. Libraries support sustainable communities and meet community needs. Librarians have done this before. Libraries are struggling to meet community’s needs. The economy sucks. Community needs are growing. More people are using libraries. Libraries are being closed.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. We can write a different story with an ending that shows our wisdom and creativity. This is a charge to librarians who are wringing their hands and fretting about the future. Now is the time to be visible. Now is the time to make yourself indispensable to your community. Make your library, your expertise, and your services the centerpiece of your community’s economic stimulus and civic health.

This is a charge to those elected to manage the budgets that fund libraries. Use them. They are one of the best things you can do for your community when it is hurting.

And to our President-elect…

Got libraries in your economic stimulus plan?


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