In today’s technology-driven society, wherein users are a click away from accessing any and all kinds of information, libraries are plagued with maintaining a position of relevancy in the community lest they succumb to obsolescence. In the words of Andre Cossette, author of “Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship,” “Librarians find themselves in a technological world amidst a technological revolution, to which they are having trouble adapting” (23). This pressure to keep up with technology is compounded by a constant lack of funds. How might libraries assert their public presence and technological authority when faced with budgetary setbacks? Librarians in Colorado and Kansas are coming up with creative solutions to these very issues.
An article published in Library Journal’s July issue presented an interesting example. This past June, Colorado’s Aurora Public Library set up shop inside a local Kmart. The 600-square foot room accommodates 11 computers for the public’s use, making it more of an information or computer center than a traditional library. Despite the center’s lack of books, users are able to access the internet for educational or recreational purposes. Library members have unlimited use of the computers, while those without library cards are restricted to one hour. Luckily, since library cards are free, this should encourage non-traditional library users to start a membership. Patrons can connect to the library’s online catalog if they wish to place a hold on books, and they can even request drop-off or pick-up of books in the store.
There are many benefits to this unconventional solution. To start, the library “runs at a fraction of the cost of a conventional branch,” allowing Aurora’s public librarians the opportunity to save the money they would have spent on materials and upkeep in a bigger library. Additionally, by placing the computer center at the front of Kmart, the library will likely benefit from a greater exposure than a traditional library building could hope to receive. Customers looking to shop at Kmart may find themselves using the computers and signing up for a library card simply because of the library’s convenient location. Finally, and perhaps best of all, by opening this satellite branch, Aurora Public Library is strengthening its relationship with the community by meeting the needs of its citizens. According to the article, “one third of individuals living in northern Aurora–where many immigrant and low-income families live and the Kmart is located–do not own personal computers.” Cossette writes that “in providing needed information [and access to that information] to all citizens, especially the most disadvantaged, the library lends its support to the realization of democratic ideals” (56). In one fell swoop, Aurora Public Library managed to maintain its relevancy within the community and provide internet access for those who need it in a cost-effective way.
Elsewhere in the country, libraries have approached these aforementioned challenges in a different, though similarly unconventional, manner. Another article in the July issue of Library Journal explained how Kansas State Library recently partnered with its local airport, Manhattan Regional, to provide passengers with reading material while they wait to board. The program, called Books on the Fly, encourages people with mobile devices such as cell phones and e-readers to scan QR codes placed on cards throughout the airport. Users are taken to the library’s website, where library members can then download, for free, any of the library’s e-books. Nonmembers are redirected to Project Gutenberg, a digital library that contains thousands of e-books ready to be downloaded to any computer or mobile device.
According to Candace LeDuc, communications coordinator of Kansas’ state library, “the only cost to the library is the printed materials. Once your material is in the airport, there’s no overhead.” Because there are no computers or physical books to maintain, this is a simple, inexpensive way to promote a library without breaking the budget.
As was the case in Colorado, by establishing a base in a highly-populated, if unorthodox, location, Kansas State Library managed to find a way to reach out to the public, especially those who may not be the traditional library patron. According to the article,“With its emphasis on QR codes as a point of entry, the program is designed to appeal to irregular readers with time on their hands.” Once again, librarians were able to find a cost-effective way to secure their library’s place in a technology-centered society.
When libraries are faced with unrelenting budget cuts, the challenges of staying atop the current technological trends and maintaining a strong relationship with the community seem overwhelming. Author and librarian Sandy Iverson worried that “while technology has increased access to information, at the same time we are experiencing funding cutbacks to the public library system…In order to continue service, libraries are beginning to charge user fees for certain services. This practice contradicts the tenets of equal access to information, and may eventually result in the extinction of the public library system.” But as the librarians in Colorado and Kansas proved, it does not have to come to that. It takes some creative thinking, but it is possible to work with a reduced budget to incorporate technology at no cost to users, all the while establishing a strong public role. As these two cases show, libraries are far from becoming extinct.
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