Friday, April 18, 2008

The people who need libraries most use us the least

A quote that caught my eye from the Library Revolution Blog. Emily Clasper covered Computer in Libraries on her blog. This quote (and I am not sure if the first sentence is the presenter and the second is her thought, it seems that way) speaks to the big problem libraries have in serving the public.

Library Revolution » Blog Archive » CIL 2008: Day 1 Keynote: "Education level is a good predictor of library use. Should this make us worried that the people who may be the least likely to use the library may be those who need us the most?"

Education and red-lining
When I read this post, it coincided with a piece I heard on NPR about the anniversary of the Fair-Housing Act and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.
How has the Fair-Housing Act fared? The piece documented how African-Americans were blocked from living in certain areas. This practice was commonly known as Red-lining. Dr. King spoke in this piece and provided an example. "When a black man goes into a realtor's office, the realtor tells him the only houses that are available are in the ghetto. When a white man goes in, the realtor suddenly has more openings in nice areas."

This practice is heavily detailed in the book Minorities in Phoenix by Brad Luckingham. He discusses how Phoenix was populated. It explains why there is a South Phoenix which has a high density of minorities and is a very poor and crime-filled area. The book is 16 years old now, but not much has really changed in these areas. The reason is that realtors blocked minorities from going into any neighborhood except the one designated for them. Then, these areas had all of their resources sucked out of them. With no businesses willing to locate there and no jobs offered, it is no wonder that these areas are as they are. It wasn't always that way, but it was designed to be so.

This impacts libraries as well. A public library exists because no private entity can provide the same vital service. These public libraries can be established in poor areas. In most cases, it is the only vital link for a depressed area to revitalize and for its population to pull itself out of poverty. In some areas, the situation is hopeless so resources like public libraries aren't used as heavily because "What's the point?" That's something serious libraries have to look at. So when I read the first post from Library Revolution, it rings very true. Those who need us most use us the least. I have looked at the stats for libraries in poor areas and the usage is low.

Consistency and equality supersede efficiency

However, the reality is that it takes a disproportionate amount of effort to make the library heavily used again. If the public can see the library's value and understand what it can do, then they will come. Part of that is faith in the library administrators. It is easy to cut funding where there is little use, it's efficient. It is being a good public steward of funds and allocate resources where it is used the most. Those in poorer areas have less usage, more lost books, and more damage to libraries. Low usage means less hours, less funding. How do you turn this around? An administrator must be dedicated to provide fair and consistent services. Consistency and equality supersede efficiency. If we don't put funding where it is needed most, we are not holding up to our true mission of service.

Place a public library in any affluent community and people will be banging on the door wanting to get in. They understand that libraries are power. That they can provide the resources to leverage anything. That the library's resources only lead to improvements to one's self. In a poor area, the people are so depressed, they don't see the need in trying. They must be convinced otherwise. I remember when Tony Garvey of the City of Phoenix Public Library made the decision to provide consistent hours throughout the city. It was a controversial move, but it provided the same level of service no matter where you went. How did she fair?

Phoenix Librarian Toni Garvey Named Librarian of the Year (2004)
During her seven-year tenure at Phoenix Public Library, circulation has increased by more than 100 percent, and visits to library facilities have grown by 26 percent.
According to the latest statistics released by the American Library Association, Phoenix libraries are open more hours per facility per week than almost any other system in the country serving one million people or more.

Librarian of the Year 2004: Toni Garvey
First came expanded hours of service. Every PPL branch, including the central library, is open seven days a week, for 66 hours. This schedule, which provides more hours of service than most city libraries, includes generous Sunday hours. Before budget cuts, PPL offered 75 hours of service a week.

When Garvey arrived, branch library schedules varied widely and hours of service were far fewer. Some branches were open 40 hours, others up to 55. Some opened on Sunday in the school year, others not at all. The fewest hours were often in the neediest neighborhoods.
"It was a fine political message to say, 'We serve everyone equally,'" says Garvey. "In a place like Phoenix, with 13 libraries to serve 1.4 million people, you have to redefine what access means. Lots of hours and uniform schedules are critical to that."

Access also means serving a diverse population. When a librarian visiting a branch in a Hispanic neighborhood found no staff who could speak Spanish, Garvey immediately discovered which staffers had language competencies. She transferred people into branches with gaps and began to recruit people fluent in Spanish. Most remarkably, PPL hired someone to teach Spanish to the whole staff, and now there are basic and intermediate Spanish classes going on all the time, with teaching geared to library situations and vocabulary.

Boost the community
It is true of urban and rural libraries in bad areas. We must provide resources and services consistently to everyone. What message can we send if we don't do that? It is difficult during today's economy to do this. At a time like this, a library's need for additional resources rises. We were able to take advantage of the booming economy. We are building a new library and have money to provide a great opening day collection. We can also continue to purchase new materials and replace damaged and lost materials. It is like the broken windows theory, if we can replace something that is damaged (and in poor areas things are damaged constantly) we can help prevent more problems. It is to provide consistent services that are always available and to be able to boost the community, when it needs us the most.

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