The State of America’s Libraries, from ALA, April 2007

ALA has published The State of America’s Libraries (pdf link), a 17 page report about what libraries in the US are up to and how they’re doing. Actually it’s more like how ALA is doing. There are a lot of people lately telling us what’s up with libraries and technology. The Gates Foundation likes to say we’re all getting wired and all getting the help we need if we’re not wired. I wonder about their results sometimes and I’m curious about ALA’s. They say a lot of what you’d expect. Despite the title, this is almost entirely about US libraries, though there is mention of Montreal’s new building.

According to the executive report: Library use is up up up, even at “one-room rural outposts” which are then contrasted with the “spectacular” Seattle Public building. I work in a rural outpost and let me tell you, no one likes to think of themselves as an outpost and the people who live there certainly don’t see their one-room library that way. Perhaps I’m touchy. Investment in e-books is up which is hardly surprising since they’re still fairly new as “book technologies” go. It’s also fairly concerning since e-books are rarely owned, often just rented. What does this mean for the actual capital of American’s libraries? Are we owning less but paying more? Additionally, people are still reading books (amazing!) I bet we will never see the ALA report that even implies that people aren’t reading as much as they used to, no matter how the numbers have to bend to support this. School libraries are still dealing with funding headaches.

The library community is still defending its users against intrusive government and censorship challenges. They don’t mention how many libraries and library systems have installed or enhanced filters that restrict access, but this number is pretty important too, and totally absent from the document. The report itself states that it’s only a “highlights” report which sort of contrasts with the title, but that’s not terrifically surprising. A few other observations and some pullquotes.

– We’re still measuring “visits” when we talk about who is going to the library. As near as I can tell a “visit” does not include a trip to the website or interaction with the library that does not occur inside the library building. For all of our 2.0 talking we’re still not totally validating “outside the box” library interactions at our highest levels. Huh. There is no mention of website statistics of public libraries at all. This has to change, and change quick. I think one thing that could rapidly change the way we think about libraries is if we would collect these sorts of numbers with the traditional library data we collect. Make libraries report their website statistics and maybe they’ll start looking at the website as a real library service. If we’re so techie now, why don’t we do this?

– “Virtually all (99 percent) U.S. public libraries now provide free public computer access to the Internet” 99% is a nice big number, but that would mean in Vermont we have two or three libraries that don’t offer this access. I wonder what their story is? I wonder how we can help them?

– “Academic libraries explored new virtual ways of providing services using technologies such as blogs, wikis, avatars, YouTube, Facebook, etc.” I know this is nitpicky, but this is a very short paragraph in a long document that dedicated nearly a page to “visits.” Where are the stats for this statement? It’s as easy or easier to track contacts in YouTube, for example. Why aren’t we seeing those numbers? If we want social tools to move beyond flavor-of-the-month status, we have to treat social tool interactions as “real” library interactions. Also, the mishmash of technologies, tools, and plain old nouns (avatars?) in this list implies strongly that whoever wrote this was either pressed for space or unclear on the concepts. Where is IM?

– Don’t miss this conclusion they draw when discussing the school library shortages: “Often the cuts in school libraries are being linked to the key requirements of the No Child Left Behind legislation.” While using the weak verb “are being linked” is a bit of a cop out, we are seeing that schools which are short of funding are having to channel that funding into getting the numbers required by No Child Left Behind and away from general educational resources like the library. The impact of this is felt disproportionately by poor and rural areas. This is shameful.

– Salaries rose but there is no indication if they rose ahead of or behind inflation and cost of living. We’d know more, but further data is contained in an ALA-APA report which you can’t get without paying for.

– Serials expenditures are up 273% While the report implies that this is because libraries are buying hard copy and electronic versions of the same titles, it’s more likely that libraries are simply being gouged by vendors who have mysterious pricing rubrics that seem more based on ability to pay than any cost of delivering or preparing services. Why aren’t we more critical of this number? Why aren’t we more critical of this disturbing trend?

– They mention My impression from hearing about it: someone is not learning the “don’t make your website a destination, become part of a community” lesson from the 2.0 world. My impression on clicking that link: embarassed as all hell. It’s marketing 101 to not announce a website before it’s ready to go live. The fact that this isn’t done by National Library Week is clearly a case of someone dropping the ball or terribly misjudging how long it takes to make a project like this go live. The “we’re not ready” page could have been a nice savvy page that made people smile and maybe even bookmark it. Instead it shows a lack of attention and respect for my time. I typed in a URL I read in their report (a non-hyperlinked URL I read in an HTML document, geez) and it looks like someone didn’t even care enough to spend 30 minutes to make a nice page with margins and maybe a box to put the text in. It’s 2007, we expect more from the web.

– 80% of US libraries are rural. I have no idea how they arrived at that number or what it means. By population? By number of buildings? It’s almost impossible that 80% of Americans are served by rural libraries, so what is going on? I assume they mean buildings.

– Spectrum Scholarships are up. This is great. Thanks to IMLS for providing addtional grant moneys to put more students into this great program.

– The ALA came out against DOPA. This is good news. However, their stated position “DOPA, as written in the House in 2006, leads to a false sense of security while over-blocking constitutionally protected material.” They stress the business uses of social tools and other “legitimate purposes” which I think glosses over 1) there is nothing wrong with social networking generally, nothing at all. It’s no less safe than the mall. 2) just because something is used in a social sense doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value and shouldn’t be overlegislated by scaremongers who don’t understand it. I wish ALA had a more savvy response to DOPA, but I am happy they came out against it.

– The ALA is trying to attract more libraries to the E-Rate program so that they can get funding for technology. This is good. However, we all know that E-rate money comes with filtering strings attached. This is bad. Libraries should be able to make their own choices about what sort of access they provide to the Internet.

– Three sentences on Google. Eesh.

So, the news is good, generally. The ALA is looking medium-clueful which is up from not-at-all-clueful a few years ago, but there’s still clearly work to be done.

2 thoughts on “The State of America’s Libraries, from ALA, April 2007

  1. I’ve always wondered about that “80% of libraries are rural” statistic, too. I have usually seen it define as “libraries that serve populations of under 50,000.” In that case, though, a great many libraries in the Chicago suburbs would qualify as rural. This release says “population of under 50,000 and not connected with an urban center,” which is a little bit better.

    It’s frustrating, though, because “rural,” no matter how you define it, covers such a wide variety of situations. My tiny rural library here in Wyoming, for instance, is actually quite well off because it is connected to both a county and a statewide system. We don’t have the same issues as a rural library in Vermont that doesn’t have internet access and isn’t an OCLC member.

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