The Shifting Mission of Libraries Today

Gone are the days where libraries were merely places to borrow a book or research a paper. Libraries are now places to create, to start businesses, to learn computer programming and more. Like many other institutions, library missions and focus are being rapidly redefined.

Where Are the Books?

There was a time not that long ago when most people defined libraries as a place to borrow books. While people still come to the library for print books, quiet spaces, and research, patrons are increasingly looking for more—for digital media like eBooks, movies, games, and programs, as well as access to and training on sophisticated technology.

Offering access to additional services can make a big difference to usage and relevancy of the library, and have become a main feature of changing library missions. According to IMLS’s 2012 report, having eBooks as part of a public library’s collection was related to higher rates of both visitation and circulation. More recent studies like Pew Research’s report Libraries at the Crossroads point out that 73% of people borrowed print books in 2012; that number went down to 66% by 2015. In that same time period, the borrowing of eBooks has increased by 5%.

Is Technology the Key to Increased Usage Going Forward?

While some people mourn the shrinking presence of print books, Pew’s research also indicates there is growing support in communities for libraries to stock less books to create more space for community and technology spaces: 30% polled said libraries “definitely” should be doing this (up from 20% back in 2012), and less people are adamantly against it. In the same study, 78% stated libraries should “definitely” offer programs to teach people how to use digital tools like computers, smartphones, and apps.

This mission, of offering technology and educating the public about it, is even more crucial for areas that are socioeconomically challenged where patrons rely on the local library to give them access and education to the same digital technologies available to people with higher incomes. Borrowing print books appears to be more popular in households with incomes of of $75,000 or more, constituents who probably could afford purchasing these items on their own. Lower income groups are far more likely to go to the library to seek information and help, use media, and to get access to technology. Extending services to meet these needs performs a necessary function for these communities, and is a main focus of shifting library missions.

Where Should the Money Go?

A budget can only be stretched so far, and difficult choices will undoubtedly have to be made. “Libraries are now spending around 20% of their budgets on eBooks. This is a format they didn’t even have to worry about not too long ago,” says Steve Coffman, Vice President for Public Libraries with LSSI, says. “Now when James Patterson comes out with a new title, the library has to buy a copy in regular print, one or more copies in eBook format, one or more copies in audio,  plus copies in large print — all with the same shrinking materials budget.” Considering eBooks are often 2-3 times as expensive as their print counterparts when libraries purchase them, this is not an inexpensive development. Yet, as Stephanie Anderson, Assistant Director for Public Services at Darien Library, says, “If 20% of my community wants something, I can’t ignore that.”

Libraries are a living entity—a representation of a particular community’s needs, and its mission shifts with the needs of that community. Librarians are often filling those gaps by mastering new skills and turning around to teach them back to the community. “Librarians,” says Claire Moore, Head of Children and Teen Services at Darien Library, “are committed to lifelong learning. But we are limited somewhat by resources and have to come up with creative ways to meet these extra needs.”

While the library may feel growing pains with these changes, it can also draw strength from its greatest asset: its community. “We’ve tried to take other teachers from the community,” says Moore, including some of the teens. “We rely on the community to help determine what to learn and have them be trained-up to become instructors.”

So where should libraries focus their attention? Undoubtedly this depends on the individual local communities, but as a group, Americans overwhelmingly say education is the foundational mission of libraries, from literacy to technological literacy.

To see more of Claire Moore and Stephanie Anderson discuss the shifting mission of libraries today, please view the following video:

Download our free white paper, The Librarian of the Future, for more information about how to make sure your library mission aligns with the needs of your library community.

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