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News & Press: FOCUS

Libraries in the 21st Century: Bringing Information to the People

Wednesday, August 2, 2017  
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When Andrew Carnegie gave his entire fortune of $60 million away to fund a system of 1,689 public libraries across the country, it was with the mission to disseminate information freely to the masses, no matter their income or societal status. Libraries through the years were embedded in their communities, viewed as instruments of the free exchange of ideas and as hubs of societal change. Libraries were always considered as vital to a vibrant community as police, fire and public schools.

Fast forward from the 1880s to the 21st century and despite our rapidly changing technology and dramatic shifts in how we consume information, one thing remains constant about libraries – their mission remains pretty much the same as it was in Carnegie’s day – take information to the people. What has changed is how libraries accomplish that mission.

“Communities need to understand that libraries are essential. We are no longer a nice thing to have,” said Kristin Shelley, Director of the East Lansing Public Library. “We are the place that people look to for information and we provide and disseminate information freely.”

Nationally, the recent recession and the well documented financial struggles for local governments have hit the library system hard. As recently as 2012, 40 percent of states decreased funding for libraries, many communities closed libraries. Despite that national trend, libraries in the Greater Lansing region continue to enjoy a broad level of public support.

“We pride ourselves on the wonderful support we get from the community,” said Scott Duimstra, Executive Director of the Capital Area District Libraries (CADL), noting that CADL’s 1.56 mill levy was approved by more than 70 percent of Ingham County voters in 2014. “We definitely don’t take that for granted.”

Stable Funding and Upgraded Facilities

CADL, the Delta Township District Library and the East Lansing Public Library all enjoy relatively stable funding sources and have recently been able to undertake significant facility upgrades.

CADL, which consists of 13 branches throughout Ingham County, has had its millage approved by voters five times since 2000, and will have its millage on the ballot again in 2018. CADL has been able to renovate a number of its branches in recent years, the most recent of which was a $670,000 renovation of the downtown Lansing branch earlier this year. Like many library systems around the country, CADL used the renovation to create more people space, reducing shelves and improving visibility. The upgrades included more meeting rooms, collaborative space and a more technology friendly environment.

“We have comfortable seating that you can plug in your device, iPads for children that have early literacy apps and iPads for adults and children that have apps for our digital collection,” said Duimstra.

In 2006, voters in Delta Township approved a perpetual one mill levy to fund library operations. The township built a new library on Davenport Drive, just east of the Lansing Mall in 2008. Among the amenities in the building are: a children’s area with stage, puppet theater, puzzles and toys, a teen area with computers and TV, a browsing area around a central fireplace (very popular in the winter), expanded shelving for books, CDs, DVDs and audiobooks, a collection celebrating women’s history, a dedicated local history room featuring a Delta Township-focused collection and space for community events and programs.

“We are most fortunate in that it is very rare to have a perpetual millage,” said Delta Township library director Mary Rzepczynski. “In addition, we have a generous and hard-working friends group.”

Beginning in 2013, the East Lansing Public Library no longer received funding from the City of East Lansing’s general fund, and is now funded primarily by two, one mill tax levies, one of which is approved by the East Lansing City Council, and one mill which will be due for renewal by the voters in 2022. In 2016, a $1.5 million renovation was completed, funded by an anonymous donation. The renovation project expanded the children and teen sections of the East Lansing Public Library, added a cyber café, a room for nursing mothers, meeting rooms and study spaces.

“We are very fortunate to have a supportive community,” said Shelley.

Challenges remain, however, mostly in the form of flat property tax revenues, threats to state funding sources and skyrocketing costs of technology, which libraries must incorporate to remain relevant in the 21st century.

Libraries in the Digital Universe

While some might view the transition to digital technology a threat, libraries have, in fact not only embraced the technological revolution – they are playing a leading role in helping their communities grasp changes in technology. The biggest group that is growing for libraries are millennials. Research shows the younger generation, although digitally savvy, still prefers printed material, but what is shifting is the different ways in which the younger generation likes to find material.

“We have to be more places,” said Duimstra. “It can’t just be a building where you sit back and expect people to come to you, so we have a mobile app, digital services online that include music, e-books, audio books, movies and television.”

Many libraries, offers computer classes to help customers learn to operate new and updated programs. 3D printers are often available, which can be particularly useful for entrepreneurs trying to get their business off the ground.

“Potentially you could come in and build your prototype here that could possibly get you some funding,” said Rzepczynski.

3D printers are part of a Makers Studio developed in East Lansing, which is a 1,200-square-foot space that allows patrons to move from being consumers of information to producers.

“In the 21st century, libraries are going to have to figure out how to narrow the digital divide,” said Shelley. “Because there will always be those that can afford it (technology) and those that cannot. Libraries are that middle ground. We have free computers. We have all the things people can download through their mobile devices and we can teach them how to use their mobile devices.”

For those that don’t have Internet access, libraries provide what are known as mobile hot spots, which can be for recreational use or people who can’t afford or can’t get a connection at home.

“We have several rural branches where there isn’t a commercial provider,” said Duimstra. “We’re trying to bring Internet connections to those communities.”

Preparing Students For 21st Century Jobs

Local libraries sponsor numerous programs to support career education and growth for students of all ages. Programs often found in the library setting include summer reading programs, career fairs, resume workshops, mock interviews and job assistance.

Rzepczynski thinks it is vital to start the process with early literacy and work it through a child’s life.

“All of the programs we offer from baby time all the way through teen programs have some aspect of literacy,” said Rzepczynski. “Talking, singing, reading, writing – we start that very young, keep making it age appropriate and creatively move it forward. I think that’s the best way to prepare kids for jobs.”

Duimstra adds that once literacy tools are in place for young people, you can build on that with digital literacy, teaching computer engineering, coding skills for pre-teens and teens, helping prepare them for jobs for the future.

“As we see computer engineering jobs and healthcare industry jobs grow, we hope to make them more comfortable with technology,” said Duimstra.

Connecting to the Community

Libraries will continue to be the place where people can gather to gain and share information. Programs offered by libraries, which literally number in the hundreds, will continue to flourish, providing funding sources remain secure. Librarians also agree that it is increasingly important for libraries to “get beyond the walls” of the physical library buildings and get information out into the community. Libraries are more prominently featured in a variety of community events including festivals, senior centers and schools.

East Lansing is raising funds for a pop-up mobile library which Shelley describes as a food truck for books. People would be able to check out books, hot spots, DVDs and more.

“We could roll it into whatever festival or other community event that we are at,” said Shelley.

Digital technology will continue to influence the services libraries offer and the ways in which libraries will interact with their customers, much like the business world. Duimstra emphasizes the importance of being flexible going forward.

“Our locations will probably stay the same size-wise, but what do we do with that space inside,” said Duimstra. “If we don’t have as many physical items and more people are accessing digital items, then what is that space in the library going to look like? It is probably going to include much more interactive space.”

Whether it is at the library or in the community, no matter the technological, cultural or societal shifts, in order to continue to thrive libraries will always remain true to their core mission as Andrew Carnegie envisioned in the 1880s, getting information to the people.

“We have to continue to turn outward and provide the services where people are,” said Rzepczynski. “We’ve always provided information. We’re going to continue to do that no matter the format.”

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