Volume XVI | Issue 2 | Fall 2016
Libraries play an important role in early childhood learning, providing a place where families can go to get the help they need to nurture children. Photo: Nora Vitz Harrison

Still in circulation: Libraries adapt

Public libraries offer volumes of community engagement

In a corner wing, preschoolers and their parents gather for story time, awash in pirate tales. It’s the same site where, earlier, children with autism or Down syndrome giggled and clapped as they crawled through a plushy fabric tunnel designed to engage their senses.  

Across the foyer and past an information desk, adults sit at a bank of computers. One man fills out an online job application. The woman beside him visits Facebook to see photos of her grandson’s birthday party two time zones away. 

Later that evening, in an adjoining meeting room, candidates debate in a gathering sponsored by the League of Women Voters.       

This hub of activity, or some variation of it, is typical of the Douglas County Library headquarters in Roseburg. But it could be unfolding in any of the 224 branches of Oregon’s 131 public libraries. And all of it is free of charge  — from Wi-Fi access to public forums to after-school activities for children and teens.   

Encouraging reading is probably the public library’s best-known role. But frequent visitors know there’s much more going on than following the Dewey Decimal trail.  

“Everybody likes to talk about the demise of the book and how our society has gone beyond the need for public libraries,” says Harold A. Hayes, director of the Douglas County Library System.  “But from the time of Benjamin Franklin onward, public libraries have contributed to a viable and working democracy.” 

Nevertheless, to keep from fossilizing into extinction, libraries have had to adapt to patrons’ needs. Exploring this necessary evolution was one of the goals of a recent assessment commissioned by the Oregon Community Foundation. 

Library consultant and former Canby Public Library Director Penny Hummel researched and produced the study published last summer. Eight primary roles were assessed. Hummel says the results show great variation in what libraries offer their patrons. Nevertheless, “public libraries are actively engaged in fulfilling all those roles in the community, and how they do so depends on their individual characteristics,” Hummel says.   

Kirsten Kilchenstein, a senior donor relations officer with the Oregon Community Foundation, says she is struck by the assessment’s finding that while Oregon ranks well below the national average in state funding of its public libraries, Oregon’s public libraries charted the highest circulation per capita of all 50 states in the fiscal year ending in 2012.

“What is clear to me is that libraries are a point of contact for so many families who are struggling,” Kilchenstein says. “Everyone is welcome to come and find their needs met, and the library is a go-to place on so many fronts.” 

Economic and workforce development

Hummel reported in the assessment that some libraries on the national level are placing great emphasis on economic and workforce development. This happens on a more informal basis in Oregon libraries. However, the study states, a temporary shutdown of Wi-Fi in one Oregon library prompted complaints that made it clear that patrons were running their small businesses on personal devices at the library.

In Douglas County, where county funding for the library has been cut by more than half since 2007, Hayes says system resources concentrate on three roles in particular: early childhood learning; educating and lifelong learning; and digital inclusion. 

Libraries play an important role in early childhood learning, providing a place where families can go to get the help they need to nurture children. Many libraries offer story time programming, access to age-appropriate books, book give-aways and celebrations. Libraries serve as an outreach point to families for available community resources, such as free lunch programs and quality childcare. 

Library staff also guide parents of preschoolers in teaching reading skills in the home — the start of lifelong learning. 

As for digital inclusion, offering Internet access is critical in an area where numerous residents live in poverty or out of Wi-Fi range. Many depend on the library as the sole place they can conduct job searches or keep in touch with distant relatives. 

For Oregon communities with large immigrant populations, being inclusive means reaching out in another way. 

Oregon State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen points out that supporting non-English-speaking populations may not be at the top of the radar for libraries that are struggling to provide basic services. Still, to the extent they are able, Dahlgreen says libraries can be a bridge to children whose parents are working multiple jobs or who are hesitant about links to any government agency.    

“At the one end of the spectrum, there are libraries that provide English Language Learning classes, as well as an online service. Some may even use Ready to Read grant money to hire a Spanish-speaking liaison,” Dahlgreen says. 

Smaller libraries with tighter budgets at least can “provide materials in other languages and, hopefully, a welcoming face,” Dahlgreen says. 

Reflecting needs

Whether they are connecting people with necessary services or linking patrons to career certification tests, public libraries attempt to reflect the needs of those who visit them. Defining that value isn’t always a matter of citing numbers or statistics. 

“I can tell you how many books were checked out last month or how many people walked through the doors,” Hayes says. “But to really tell you what libraries are, I’d have to say that a community without schools or parks or libraries — it’s not a community most people want to live in.”   

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