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.