Libraries Shift to Social Services, Away from Literacy

Published July 11, 2013

One hundred thirty thousand letters meant $47 million for the New York Public Library.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed cutting the library’s budget by 18 percent and closing several branches. Even after limiting service hours in response to other budget cuts, NYPL now boasts the largest library budget in the country at more than $245 million.

The library released a statement saying New Yorkers, by writing to stop the cuts, had demonstrated their belief libraries are not a luxury.

Ninety-one percent of Americans 16 and older say libraries are important to their communities, according to a Pew Internet Research Center poll. Seventy-seven percent say free computer and internet access at libraries is “very important.”

Many state constitutions have provisions claiming responsibility to promote literacy as essential to preserving a self-governing republic. In recent decades, however, libraries have shifted toward becoming social service and community centers instead.

When Public Libraries Were Private
Like many major libraries, NYPL was not always tax-funded. In the mid-19th century, New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden donated his $2.4 million fortune to the city to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room.”

Eight years later, Tilden’s library endowment was combined with those of two other private New York libraries, the Lenox and Astor Libraries. Decades ago, philanthropists considered sponsoring libraries as a way to help fellow citizens educate themselves.

Similar instances of businessman Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” philosophy have dwindled with time, says Jami Lund, an education policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation.

“We used to have a sense of social responsibility,” Lund said. “There used to be a culture of success that was dependent on the community. Now there is a notion of delegation of individual responsibility to government responsibility.”

Although local governments are likely the most appropriate entities to fund and govern public libraries, Lund said, putting libraries under government control can create social discord because different groups value different things from them. Governments must attempt to accommodate everybody, whereas private institutions can set their own policies. 

“They say that they’re using taxpayer dollars to give [taxpayers] literature,” Lund said. “That’s a great reason to have libraries. But there is no doubt that they are reinventing themselves in this digital world that is constantly changing around them. And that brings along things that taxpayers don’t want.”

Social Services vs. Literacy
Libraries have become centers for free internet use in the last decade, moving books to make way for computer labs where patrons can play games and browse pornography, Lund noted. This often provokes complaints, but to comply with how courts have defined free speech rights, libraries that receive federal funding cannot filter their computers.

“You don’t always get what you sign up for when you want a library,” Lund said.

Libraries offer many free and valuable services, especially when times are hard, said Kathy Dunham, senior librarian of youth services at the Lacey Timberland Library in Washington state.

“Library use goes up during economic downturns,” Dunham said. “We try and be of essence to patrons. We fill a void where there’s a need.”

Lacey Timberland, NYPL, and many U.S. libraries offer assistance with tax forms, the English language, and practice citizenship exams. The Obama administration recently came under fire for asking the American Library Association to have librarians help people sign up for tax-subsidized healthcare.

‘Less Book-Centered’
Libraries are not purely educational, said Children’s Outreach and Programming Librarian Laurie Willhalm of Oakland, Calif.

“Part of our mission is outreach to families and children,” Willhalm said. “We’ve become much more community-centered, and less book-centered—without getting rid of the books.”

In 2011, four branches of the Oakland Public Library began hosting free lunches for library visitors 18 and younger. This summer 11 of the 17 branches will participate in the program.

Similar free lunch programs have been adopted by libraries across the country, including Portland’s Multnomah Public Library and branches of the Chicago Public Library.

“The days of a librarian sitting at the desk, waiting for people to come to you, are gone,” said Dunham. “It’s all about reaching out to the community. It’s a big transition for librarians. We wear more hats than we used to.”

Summer programs such as shows by ‘Reptile Man’ and various dance performances funded by the library are favorites among young families in the Lacey community. Once the academic year begins, the library takes a behind-the-scenes approach.

Partnering with Schools
Every January, LTPL hosts a book talk at every nearby middle school.

“We see every middle school student in the district,” Dunham said. “It’s not as flashy as the performances we pay for in the summer. But it gets kids reading.”

At the beginning of every school year, LTPL sends librarians to various elementary and middle schools to connect students with “good reads.” Outreach is a new task librarians have taken on over the past 50 years, said both Dunham and Willhalm.

“We don’t say ‘shush’ anymore,” Willhalm said. “The library is really a community center. These days our children;s sections tend to be loud.”

The policy question still remains: Should taxpayers pay for whatever activities libraries conduct in the name of “literacy”? Lund asks.

“Does dissolving libraries and expecting people to be responsible mean that people will actually be responsible?” Lund asked. “It’s something to think about.” 

Image by Iris Shreve Garrott.