The university of the public library

I am a librarian at a small public library in rural Florida. While there is a lot to love about my community, many of my patrons face the ills of rural poverty: outdated infrastructure, inadequate schools, a lack of access to computers and high-speed Internet, and insufficient transportation. Under these circumstances, the public library isn’t just a “nice thing to have”–it’s a lifeline to community and social services, as well as the many benefits of access to technology.

While the library’s core mission is still to provide access to books and a place for free expression, providing access to high-speed Internet has become increasingly important. Far from reducing the need for libraries, the Internet has made libraries more valuable in communities like mine. People now use public computers and Internet to access job training, social services, and even healthcare, often with the assistance of library staff.

The library building has become more important too. My library maintains the largest public meeting room in the county. Like many rural libraries, it also serves as the physical office for work placement, legal aid, and children’s and family services. This results in a net savings for our state, which has been able to reduce the cost of administrating and housing social programs (especially in far-flung rural areas) while maintaining library aid at 2008 levels.

It has also benefited our patrons, who can now access books, classes and literacy programs–fundamental tools for escaping poverty–in the same place and at the same time as they access social services. Libraries now serve as co-working spaces, business incubators and content creation labs, providing people with even more ways to achieve financial independence and realize their ambitions. Furthermore, these programs are staffed and administered by people who live in the community they serve.

Similar changes are happening in libraries all over the country. A combination of the Great Recession and rapid technological transformation has vastly expanded the public library’s profile, role and mission. While people talk about the “end of books,” library usage across the U.S. and Canada has significantly increased over the last 20 years.

However, I feel like one of the most important and exciting changes in library usage hasn’t been formally studied, publicized or accounted for. In the last few years, several students in my community have earned their university or graduate degrees entirely at the public library. These dedicated, ambitious students are mostly young working mothers, currently employed in low-wage jobs, who are seeking a better life. Many of them are studying for careers in healthcare, retraining themselves for a 21st century economy. The library doesn’t issue their degrees, but they wouldn’t be able to graduate without the library. Here, they find the physical space to study, a place for their kids to read and do homework, and college-level advice, support and guidance from librarians.

I don’t believe these students are alone. I think public libraries are turning into community colleges all over the country, not because politicians made a plan or spent a bunch of money, but because people are putting their libraries’ resources to use. I see tremendous economic, social opportunity here. There are so many benefits:

  • Communities enjoy the economic benefits of hosting a new community college without having to invest in new buildings, staff or infrastructure. This is even more valuable in communities like mine, which wouldn’t be able to support a college any other way.
  • Parents and children can learn in the same space, which helps break the cycle of poverty. While parents earn their college degrees, improving both their earning potential and level of education, children have access to thousands of books (a key factor in children’s literacy) as well as programs like storytime. Parents don’t have to find child care while they study, and children get to see their parents working hard in college.
  • Whole families have more opportunities to learn and spend time together, through family programs. Basic literacy, many STEM subjects (e.g., basic electronics, coding), cultural studies, and health and home education (e.g., safety, cooking, personal finance) are great subjects for parents to learn along with their kids.
  • Students can tailor their classes to their work schedules and needs, without losing contact with other students. They can choose what, when and how they want to learn. They also maintain access to graduate-level face-to-face guidance through their local librarian. This especially benefits non-traditional students who might not be able to thrive in (or afford) a regular college environment.
  • Private and online colleges benefit through increased attendance and revenue. Furthermore, the public library provides their academic adviser, classroom, academic library and computer lab, saving private colleges on costs while helping ensure their students’ success.
  • State and federal governments benefit as library aid dollars stretch further than ever before. The library is a perfect place to integrate social, educational and employment services, providing immediate poverty relief in the same building as college resources, employment services, help for entrepreneurs and affordable child care. Not only are libraries providing access to college to the people who need it the most, but students are less likely to need social services in the future. College graduates are more likely to get living-wage jobs, start businesses, improve their living conditions and make good decisions about their finances and health. They will also pay more in taxes over the course of their lives, increasing the sustainability and efficiency of government programs. Furthermore, their children are much more likely to attend college.

And that’s just the easy stuff. As you read this list of benefits, keep in mind that this is not a proposal for a costly new government program, but something that is happening organically, right now, in our communities. Simply by being there for students, public libraries are serving as a launching point into the middle and professional classes. I find this very exciting, not only for the reasons listed above, but because I am sure that patrons will find even more ways to use libraries to improve their economic circumstances. I also think there are ways for libraries and policymakers to maximize these benefits.

In fact, the biggest concern that I have about this trend is that it will not be noticed, that budget cuts will close off this opportunity before it’s fully explored. Many states seem to see library budgets and, especially, librarians’ salaries, as a tempting target for cuts. But access to an educator with a master’s degree is one of the things first-time college students need the most, and it’s one of the reasons this revolution was (and is) possible. It’s not just that libraries provide reliable, affordable access to the Internet. And it’s not even that librarians are highly trained in academic research, information science and information technology. The simple fact that librarians have successfully completed college and graduate school is an invaluable resource to students.

There are very few teachers (or parents) with master’s degrees in my community. I have spent many hours helping students choose classes; understand their homework assignments; find and cite academic sources for their papers; proofread their work; and use online classrooms–the same jobs an academic librarian or academic adviser would have in a college. Since free time, affordable transportation and access to technology are problems for college students here, I often worry about how they would navigate these challenges if they didn’t have access to the library’s resources, which include master’s level librarians. This revolution takes more than broadband.

But not much more. Here are the ways I think we could help support our low-income college students and their libraries:

  • Research. How many college students are learning primarily at public libraries? Who are they? Do they graduate at a higher or lower rate than other college students? How does their college experience affect their future, both in comparison with traditional students and with people who didn’t go to college at all? Do their children see benefits? How can whole-family learning affect factors like adult literacy rates and poverty reduction? More information is needed to clarify how common this trend is and how we can help. I feel like this is an excellent subject for Ph.D students and Schools of Information (iSchools) to explore.
  • Ensure that every library in America employs an MLIS librarian. It’s important for every library to have at least one staff member has completed college and graduate school, in order to provide college-level guidance and support to students of all ages. MLIS librarians are especially valuable in communities where high levels of education are rare. However, library wages are so low that it is hard to attract librarians with master’s degrees to poor and rural communities. Furthermore, librarians’ workloads have increased significantly in recent years. In 2013, the federal government called on librarians to help administer the Affordable Care Act, an unfunded mandate. This year they’re asking us to use new E-rate funds to expand our digital services. It’s time to give our nation’s librarians a raise. And it is past time to ensure that all our libraries (especially the smallest and poorest) can support a full-time MLIS librarian.
  • Maintain or increase state aid and federal matching grants. It’s not just about increasing broadband Internet access, a current federal priority. That’s important–according to the ALA, 60% of libraries don’t have sufficient Internet speeds to support their students. But E-rate dollars are wasted if federal and state governments don’t make a strong financial commitment to libraries. Libraries need to be open, maintained and adequately staffed. If the library’s doors are locked, or they can’t afford computers (or building repairs, or electricity, or tech support, or librarians) their 100mbps download speed drops to zero.
  • Build stronger relationships between public libraries, state/community colleges, MOOCs, and private colleges. Private colleges and online programs should seek more formal partnerships with public libraries to see how we can work together to deliver services to college students. State universities may want to explore ideas like offering an online bachelor’s degree (or even just a few college courses) in partnership with public libraries. Even major corporations could use libraries to provide retraining and help narrow the talent gap. Government should also be involved in ensuring that private online colleges meet the same standards as state colleges.
  • Create a collegiate environment in public libraries. Most libraries are already very welcoming to students. If they weren’t, students wouldn’t use them. But as libraries renovate with a view toward the future, they should make sure there are spaces where people feel like they’re on campus, where they can fully participate in online classes and do individual and group work as students. I believe that creating this type of environment helps support academic success. This involves both organizational and aesthetic considerations. Since libraries serve a diverse population of patrons, dedicated space for college students to learn is important. Things like computer usage time limits and bankers’ hours are an impediment to college students who have jobs.

Again, I don’t think these are costly investments–especially when compared with the high cost of building new colleges, paying for lifelong social services for the unemployed, or denying these hardworking and creative students access to the resources they need to succeed. Far more important is a renewed and refreshed commitment to our public libraries and a deeper understanding of their role in the community, both now and in the future. As state and federal governments (including Florida) make their allocations for library aid this year, I hope that they will keep these students in mind, and ensure the stability of public libraries for years to come.

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