By Brian C. Jones
Rhode Island Library Report
How are Rhode Island’s public libraries doing?
In some ways, pretty well.
Especially if libraries are viewed from a glass-half-full perspective in responding to the challenges presented by the digital technology revolution, which has changed many people’s relationship to books and information.
Two important measures help tell the story:
The bulk of library funding comes from their home governments, about $32 million.
Collectively, the state’s 48 public library systems constitute a respectable industry, employing 1,007 workers – many of them savvy specialists, who are both neutral arbiters of information and passionate defenders of unfettered access to information. The library systems bring in revenues of nearly $51 million a year in local, state, federal and charitable funds.
In the period covered by the state data roundup – the last half of 2013 and first half of 2014 – libraries counted more than 6 million visitors. That’s equivalent to every Rhode Islander walking into a public library six times a year.
And at a time when the digital revolution has children and elders alike mesmerized as they stare into large and small video screens, libraries serve as a bricks-and-mortar common gathering place for actual, non-virtual people to attend community meetings and one-on-one and group tutorials.
The number of programs libraries offer – ranging from English-as-a-second-language to gardening to computer training sessions – have increased 25 percent during the past five years, with a total of 25,792 such programs in 2014, drawing 407,511 participants; it's a 16 percent increase in five years.
Moreover, libraries are doing things in new ways that statistics only hint at, by providing their patrons with access to computer resources, an evolution in their role as free information portals during the paper-and-ink days.
This is especially important as Rhode Island, which pioneered the Industrial Revolution in the United States, now finds itself one of the nation’s economic laggards, with persistent high unemployment and underemployment.
“We see a really big role for libraries in continuing to help Rhode Islanders get back to work,” says Karen Mellor, who was appointed state chief of library services last December.
For example, libraries are serving as way-stations for jobless workers seeking unemployment benefits, one requirement of which is a resume to help them find new work.
For some workers, who cannot afford high-speed Internet access, or computers, or both, the 1,397 computer terminals available without charge at libraries are a lifeline in seeking benefits and jobs. Libraries counted 1.4 million users of the terminals last year.
Many librarians are now well-versed in helping patrons learn how to use computers and to comply with elementary requirements of the state Department of Labor and Training.
Similarly, when the nation’s new health care program, the Affordable Care Act, was rolled out, libraries served as places where “navigators” from HealthSource RI could meet with potential customers of Rhode Island’s homegrown insurance exchange.
The nine-branch Providence Community Library had seven employees trained as official navigators, and they helped 261 people sort through and sign up for health insurance plans.
Also, AskRI.org, the Statewide Reference Resource Center, continues to expand its scope beyond that of an "ask-the-librarian" service, becoming a hub on library Websites that provides a wide range of online services, from auto repair advice to language-learning programs.
“We see a really big role for libraries in continuing to help Rhode Islanders get back to work."
The number of e-books is still limited as libraries thrash out arrangements with book publishers, who would rather sell books to individual customers than sell licenses to libraries. Still, e-material loans – mostly books – last year totaled nearly 460,000, which is about 10 percent of the circulation of traditional print materials.
The glass half-empty
Comparing the 2014 period covered by the latest OLIS data roundup to similar data collected during the previous four years, the libraries showed slippage in circulation, the number of patrons with library cards and people visiting.
- The number of registered borrowers, or cardholders, slipped by 108,158 between 2010 and 2014. The current total of 466,618 cardholders represents a loss of nearly 19 percent.
- Similarly, circulation dropped 8.5 percent, down from more than 7.8 million in 2010 to less than 7.2 million last year.
- And visitors numbered nearly 6.3 million five years ago, compared to 6 million last year, about a 4 percent drop.
- Public computer users even dropped, although only about 1 percent.
In fact, one of the most important areas of state aid – the grants that go to local libraries for their operating budgets – remain at the same dollar amount under Raimondo’s proposed budget as in 2007.
While generous compared to no-aid in many other states, Rhode Island’s grant-in-aid program would stay at $7,698,411, which means a loss of about $1 million in spending power when inflation is taken into account, according to federal Consumer Price Index calculators.
Will libraries be able to retain a large consumer base, which, in turn, will prompt local and state governments, along with foundations and private donors, to continue to fund libraries?
Or will changed reading habits, new ways of communicating and a changed media culture prompted by computer technology undermine libraries’ traditional role as centers of no-fee learning and information?
Karen Mellor, the new state library chief, is upbeat.
“I think libraries are being really tremendously proactive,” says Mellor.
“Whereas we had that 19th Century model of a book repository – people who go and get their books there; now the library is a dynamic, living, breathing organism that looks at what the community needs and responds to that.”
He gave the example of a “Teen Tech Squad” program, in which nine young persons compiled profiles of Providence neighborhoods, using computer tablets to conduct interviews, then researching the library’s historical collections and, finally, creating Websites to display what they’d found.
In just 10 weeks, the team had acquired “a portfolio of skills,” acting as reporters, researchers, Website designers and storytellers, Martin said.
“I think libraries have an opportunity to help people make this shift from being sheer consumers to actually creators and writers,” Martin said. “It’s a whole new Wild West.”
Laura Marlane, director of the city’s other library system, the Providence Community Library, notes that the network of neighborhood branches is playing a traditional role of providing children with information they might not get elsewhere.
But, now, she says, the Digital Revolution has increased, rather than diminished, the importance of this kind of work.
“Libraries are even more essential with the Internet, because it’s so easy to get misinformation if you don’t know how to look for things properly,” says Marlane, explaining that when children come to the library after school, staffers can help them navigate the Internet.
“They come here, and they do their homework here, and we point them towards legitimate resources,” Marlane says. “We teach them how to know what’s a good resource, and what’s not and how to be more aware.”
Still, the year-to-year figures that OLIS collects so carefully may signal new trends, both positive and negative, and therefore are valid indicators that should not be ignored by those who regard libraries as an essential underpinning of American democracy.
(Photo Credits: Mellor, OLIS; Martin and Marlane, Library Report)