August 21, 2014

The Programming Explosion | Blatant Berry

Programs for the public have always been a staple of American library service. New needs brought on by an economic downturn, a shift to digital devices, and an onslaught of immigration have given library programs greater importance than ever in the array of offerings public libraries provide. The result has been development of new best practices to make library programs much more popular with the public and much more useful in providing things people want and need. The growth and popularity of new programs in libraries have given them a far higher priority in library service. It has forced librarians to develop new methods, skills, and spaces for the creation and delivery of programs.

This may be old news to librarians on the front lines, but reading about the incredible programming efforts of the San Diego County Library (SDCL), the 2012 LJ/Gale Library of the Year (http://ow.ly/bsoU9), brought home the immensity of the change and the extent of the current transformation in programming. Incredibly, SDCL offers more than 22,000 programs annually at its 33 branches, and similar growth is happening in libraries everywhere.

Effective library managers like those in San Diego County know that the first consideration in program planning has to be the current demands of the public. To tap this huge community reservoir, the best experts are the library staffers who work directly with that public. From such disparate places as Queens, NY, and Darien, CT, to San Diego, staffers have been given the autonomy and authority to try new ideas. That is the right place to start.

Libraries quickly learned that traditional library design cannot accommodate the explosion of programs (see also “Design for Change”). The single community room so common in libraries is just not enough space, even if programs for children have their own corner. These libraries must be able to accommodate several programs simultaneously.

The variety of yearnings has forced libraries to address subjects they haven’t dealt with since the Great Depression. Libraries have had to find new partners in dozens of fields. In Queens, classes were added on English as a second language and tutorials on how to navigate the city bureaucracy, especially the school system. Library partners brought expertise to such varied concerns as health services, finance, parenting and child rearing, technology, diet and fitness, and education. In Darien (full disclosure: my wife is the director in Darien), a temporarily unemployed human resources executive brought his mastery to early “Mornings at Seven,” where out-of-work executives met to develop strategies to get new jobs. Of course, many libraries offer IT tutorials; in San Diego County, they are offered in Arabic.
The programming explosion brings thousands of new people to these libraries. Most of them become cardholders and regular library users. Circulation has doubled and even tripled in some, and attendance is at an all-time high. This brings voter attention and pressure on government to restore budgets as the economy and revenues improve. Funding authorities realize that to provide the number and variety of programs to meet demand, buildings have to be redesigned or at least ­rearranged.

Programs have transformed many public libraries into true community centers. They have magnified the importance of the public library to those communities and attracted thousands of new regular visitors who want to participate. Library programs have helped citizens solve all kinds of problems, learn new skills, and even enjoy an evening of entertainment. There is no doubt that a much-expanded and varied array of programs will be one of the key services of the successful public library of the future.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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Comments

  1. “Programs have transformed many public libraries into true community centers.” And this may or may not be OK. The ethical quandry is whether we should have said to the public at some point “we’re going to turn ourselves into community centers. Is that cool with you?” Note that this problem is independent of whether the public currently or ultimately does approve of the change. You need only travel one step further to begin wondering why “staying relevant” was so important to library directors. All of this is separate of the myriad strategic issues one expects to encounter in this shift. For example, what will come of this encroachment onto the turf of unemployment agenices, independent non-profits, community colleges, and um … actual community centers? Once the new mission is clear to tax payers and voters, will they support levies and bond issues at the levels they have done so in the past? If they do, that support would signify a major shift in American society, I think. I.e., programming has bought us some time, but it is no panacea for the existential threats we are STILL underestimating.

  2. The first consideration needs to be what sort of staffing does a library have, and what is honestly needed to keep the doors open and the materials circulating so that safety and sanity for all are ensured. Too often this is low-balled. But then, infrastructure isn’t “sexy”, either in libraries or in our society as a whole.