Editor's note: According to a December 2019 Gallup poll, library visits outpaced trips to movies and live sporting events in 2019. In fact, visiting the library remains the most common cultural activity that Americans engage in, by far. Libraries are most frequented by young adults, women, and people from low-income households. Why is this? We turn to Oleg Kagan for answers. This article is republished in partnership with EveryLibrary.org
Fact: Between 1990 and 2014, visits to public libraries grew by a whopping 181 percent. For context, the population of the United States increased by 28 percent during that period. Why have so many more people have been using their libraries in the last two decades? Here's what I think.
Librarians Are More Involved in Communities
In the distant past, the library building was the center of a librarian's professional world. While library directors attended meetings outside of the library, the rest of the library staff typically stayed behind their desks. Over time, the thinking on this evolved, and now librarians regularly expand the library's reach by presenting at community meetings, staffing booths at events, and just generally applying their skills in creative ways to help their community.
For example, some libraries have formed partnerships with nearby nonprofits that allow their librarians to temporarily work in those organizations. There they can use their skills in information architecture, metadata development, and, more often than not, technology to assist in ways that further the mission of both the library and the nonprofit. In the library world, terms like outreach and community engagement have become a regular part of our business. Indeed, there is even a blog dedicated to embedded librarianship.
Responsive, Unique, and High-Quality Program Offerings
Libraries have hosted programs such as book clubs, film screenings, story times, and arts and crafts for years. Most people's upbringing probably involves at least one story time at the library. To be fair, there is nothing wrong with these programs — they're great! And yet, libraries have raised the bar with their program offerings in the past few decades to respond to patron needs.
Workshops and training on starting a business, basic job skills, and STEM programs for kids are just a few new options available. But that's not all: Libraries across the country are also organizing larger multiday events like comic-cons, "community reads" events, and literary festivals. (In this regard, I am proud to point to the TRANSPORT: Topanga Literary Festival, which I helped create at the Topanga Library.)
Libraries provide these marvelous events, and people vote with their feet. Notice the increase in program attendance over the years. Those numbers on the side are in thousands.
Increasingly, people are coming to libraries in droves for high-quality and responsive program offerings.
More Open Professional and Institutional Attitudes
Librarians of the old-garde (old as in "in the past," not as in age) viewed themselves as gatekeepers and protectors of The Collection. They were neutral and impersonal, mere representatives of a vaunted institution and its secret processes and bureaucracy. Their service was frequently equal but not equitable, and they were not known to be especially personable. The new-garde is different. We love people and books, in that order. We have unique and individual personalities which we use to serve our communities better. And we prefer to provide access rather than restrict it.
Library institutions, too, have become more personable and transparent. Many are reducing or removing fines and instituting amnesty months to decrease barriers to access. They are also encouraging librarians to step out from behind their desk and meet people where they are. To help with that are initiatives like mobile libraries and specially designed bikes to bring learning and smiles to residents who may not be aware of the breadth of library services.
A Focus on Marketing and Communications
Traditionally, libraries have been shy about sharing their success with the outside world. Even now, many libraries are uncomfortable about budgeting their limited funding towards getting the word out. This is, thankfully, changing; librarians are taking to social media and the online world with verve and personality, producing podcasts (see The Librarian Is In from NYPL), blogs (see Shelf Talk from Seattle Public Library), and running top-notch Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat feeds. To wit, the power of librarians on social media is demonstrated every year during the annual American Library Association conference when the conference's Twitter hashtag trends nationally for the days of the event because so many librarians are communicating about the proceedings.
Traditional media, too, is seeing librarians speaking out about their amazing work. To give an example: At the end of August 2017, Los Angeles librarian Tiffany Chow was interviewed on NPR's Marketplace about why millennials love libraries so much. Libraries and librarians on national media is starting to become a regular occurrence because as soon as journalists catch on to what libraries are up to, they cannot help seeing stories there. And in case you weren't aware, there's also this one awesome Medium publication over here spreading the library gospel.
Embrace of a User-Centered Approach to Technology
Possibly the biggest reason that library visits have grown so drastically in the last two decades is that libraries have become the go-to places for computer classes, help with devices like tablets and e-readers, and access to free e-books and audiobooks. Over time, people have come to understand that the role of libraries is not on the bleeding edge of technology but focused rather on the needs of their communities. It would not, after all, be appropriate for libraries to blow their budgets on every new gadget and operating system that surfaces (and often sinks), would it?
On the other hand, it is part of the library's role to assess technology needs and create opportunities for the public to have those needs met. According to the State of America's Libraries 2015 report, "Nearly all (97.5%) public libraries offer free wireless internet access [and] technology training is offered in nearly all (98.0%) public libraries." Libraries succeed at technology not by upgrading their computers every year but by helping their patrons access the information they need, whether it is at the library or at home using the skills they learned at the library.
The More Things Change …
Though libraries will always be in the process of evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of their patrons, some things will likewise always stay the same. Libraries will continue to be the place where curiosity comes to grow and thrive, where every person will always be welcome, where the freedom to read and explore will always be protected, and where the private intellectual and spiritual pursuits of the public will always be respected. That is why libraries and librarians will continue to serve their communities with dignity and honor.
About the Author
Oleg Kagan is managing editor for the EveryLibrary magazine on Medium. He is also media advisor to EveryLibrary. In this capacity, he is helping to shape and explore what a consumer-focused publication can do in the advocacy and messaging space. This post was originally published here. Mr. Kagan serves as the community library manager of the Topanga Library for the County of Los Angeles Public Library.