Not So Quiet Anymore: The New Role of Libraries
Once, libraries were the main—and sometimes the only—repository for information. With today’s technology, however, an abundance of digital information is available anywhere there is an internet connection. Faced with this movement toward more universally accessible information, libraries must make the shift from being perceived as places that only house books to places that provide access to the information and tools needed to succeed in modern life.
This is especially important for school and community libraries that serve underprivileged students. While libraries provide useful resources for everyone, they are critically important for students who do not have access to books, computers, or knowledgeable digital experts in their own homes. As libraries move forward to address the changing needs of their communities in the digital age, it’s important to remember the educational impact of a library that can help “level the playing field” for underserved students.
Libraries and librarians—a technology resource
In this day and age, the majority of American households have home computers and internet access. In fact, according to the United States Census Bureau, 83.8 percent of U.S. households reported computer ownership in 2013, with 78.5 percent of all households having a desktop or laptop computer and 63.6 percent having a handheld computer.
However, digital inequality still exists, and it can be a difficult barrier to overcome for underprivileged students. A 2016 article by School Library Journal reports that while 90% of lower-income households do have access to the Internet, about a third rely only on mobile devices rather than a home computer. Those that do have a home computer may still be under-connected, with older machines, slower Internet connections, or simply sharing one device among many family members.
Therefore, in addition to providing basic computer access, libraries should have a variety of computer programs available that visitors may not have access to at home. These might include language acquisition, reading, or graphic design programs, to name a few.
For many years, libraries have also provided access to tools that the average person may not own, such as copiers and color printers. Moving forward, they will still serve as a technology resource hub for those who are not in a position to purchase these tools for home use, but these tools will be much more diverse. In addition to printers and copiers, they may include 3-D printers, laser cutters, iPads and tablets, and audio-visual equipment. Some libraries are even embracing the growing “maker movement” by providing components such as circuit boards and sensors for their users.
Don’t discount the value of a librarian
A library cannot run without a librarian—someone who is an expert in researching and organizing information. Though the role of a librarian may look different today than it did in the days of card catalogs, its central purpose still holds true.
Today’s librarians must still be experts in how to find and organize information, but since much of this now exists digitally, librarians must also understand how to use the internet as a research tool. This means being adept at using keywords and metadata both to find information and to categorize it at a level that goes far beyond a simple Google search.
For students that do not have access to a computer or Internet at home, librarians themselves can be crucial resources for using software, conducting Internet research, and even completing homework. According to the School Library Journal, a recent survey reported many children in lower and moderate-income families were helping their parents learn to use technology. However, the parents were still tasked with helping their children evaluate and interperet information from the Internet. Access to tech-savvy librarians allows both children and adults the opportunity to learn how to use new digital devices safely and effectively.
Flex the space to serve the community
Today, libraries must serve as communal spaces where all citizens can come to learn, think, discuss, and create, and flexible space allows libraries to accommodate a wide variety of community needs.
Many libraries offer summer reading programs for kids, but there are also valuable community opportunities for book clubs, author talks, coding classes, parent groups, or even ELL programs. To remain relevant, libraries must re-examine the needs of the communities they serve and provide programming that helps their patrons become literate in all senses of the word.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, when asked to name libraries’ strengths, a panel of library staff overwhelmingly responded with “community.” In response to need, the library may serve as a modern-day general store, a social hub with free access to Wi-Fi and computers, or just a warm and welcoming space. Others defined community as partnering with local groups to promote literacy of all kinds, including digital literacy and mastery of other 21st-century skills. One librarian described the library’s role in the community as similar to a buyer’s co-op, because “very few people can afford access to so many resources on their own, so we pool our taxes together to create the collection and services.” In this sense, the library as a local resource remains relevant because it is a centralized place for local groups, activities, and information.
For school libraries, this “community space” can help level the playing field between low-income students and their peers. A 2014 study by University of Missouri professor Denice Adkins analyzed the results of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment to determine how school libraries were used by students of all income levels. Splitting the student population into thirds, with those of the lowest income level labeled “poor,” the intermediate group as “middle,” and the highest third as “rich,” Professor Adkins found that school libraries are indeed used more heavily and have more of an impact on the bottom third, or “poor,” students. Compared to their “middle” and “rich” peers, “poor” students were less likely to have home access to a desk, sources of literature, books of poetry, textbooks, or a dictionary. While students of all economic status reported using their school libraries for accessing the Internet, doing homework, and learning new information, poor students used the library and its resources more frequently than their peers. Within the school, the library is a vital part of the community, allowing students quiet space and access to resources that they might not otherwise have.
No matter the changes or innovations made to libraries, they must remain true to their mission: to promote literacy and provide free access to information in all its forms. As one librarian stated, “The guiding principle should be to keep abreast of all the ways to get info to the public and to provide it free of charge.” By remaining conscious of how libraries continue to support students and community members with more limited resources while also moving ahead to embrace the digital age, libraries remain a relevant and valuable support to the education world.