Community Needs Dictate Local Library Functions

McGraw-Hill’s 2016 report, The Changing Role of Libraries, reveals differences in how the role of libraries changes depending on the communities they serve. Elementary school libraries, for example, are four times as likely to emphasize the importance of providing access to technology as higher education libraries. In K-12 schools, 39.2% of respondents cite access to technology as important, whereas only 10% of participants in higher education agreed. Faculty, students, and other patrons at medical schools and higher education institutions commented in the survey that students already had access to new devices, and that library programs often couldn’t keep up with rapid advancements in technology.

The McGraw-Hill survey also reveals differences in budget and access to resources. In many K-12 libraries, budgets are so constrained that library staff are eliminated or shared across a district. In these communities, libraries report their space is used for multiple purposes beyond the original scope and mission of libraries. For example, libraries are periodically closed for use as secure standardized testing environments. The smaller the budget, the more likely libraries are pushed into new roles and the more concerned patrons become about losing their libraries.

These findings correlate to those by Pew Research. According to Pew Research’s 2015 survey Libraries at the Crossroads, 65% of Americans say that closing their local library would have a major impact on their community. Americans in lower-income areas are more likely to say losing their public library would negatively impact their community and are more likely to report that libraries are equalizers in terms of giving their community access to technology, business development resources, and job-search and workforce enhancement skills. In both studies, libraries serving communities with greater economic need often emphasized access to high-ticket technology resources like computers, video equipment, and 3D printers.  

In the McGraw-Hill survey, some librarians indicated they see this inequality between economic groups as temporary. As technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, the technological divide between classes will be less pronounced. Similarly, the cheap production and dissemination of workforce enhancement training (such as the Khan Academy and YouTube tutorials) helps to equalize differences in resources.

If you’d like to learn more about the changing role of libraries, please click here to read the full report.

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