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Is the Time Past for Public Libraries? Rethinking a California Institution

June 26, 1988|Carol Aronoff | Carol Aronoff is the director of the Santa Monica Public Library and a former president of the California Library Assn.

Are public libraries facing extinction?

--One-third of the nation is illiterate and 40% of young adults don't read books, author Jonathan Kozol writes.

--In Shasta County, the public library, strapped for funds, is boarded up and voters defeat a property-tax fee for library support.

--A new study reports a growing disparity between traditional users of public libraries (white, female and better educated) and the general population (projected by the year 2000 to be 48% ethnic and racial minority).

Given this sobering news, what can be said about the future of the public library in California? Is it doomed, like the dinosaur? Or can it, like the primate, develop adaptive skills to survive in a changing environment?

If you have not paid a visit to a public library in recent years, you may be in for a surprise. Libraries are not the same places they were even five years ago. The ones in tune with their communities have already begun the process of adapting services to the needs and interests of varied users, and even to some heretofore non-users. It is not uncommon to find the following:

--Books, periodicals, records and other audio-visual materials in a multitude of foreign languages, both for the native speaker and the student.

--Proliferating audio-visual materials, including audio and video cassettes, compact discs and full-length "talking books" on audiocassettes, as well as playback equipment to check out.

--Microcomputers for in-library use and software to check out.

--Classes in computer literacy, to learn English as a second language or one-on-one literacy tutoring.

--Income-tax forms and the photocopy machines to reproduce them.

--Computerized access to library catalogues or information databases.

--Expanded after-school programs for the "latchkey" child, as well as story hours for preschool toddlers.

How public libraries can or should adapt to the state's changing population is the focus of a 112-page study by the Santa Monica-based RAND Corp., commissioned by the California State Library. The study's recommendations, together with those of a recent conference of librarians, public officials and community leaders, will be reviewed by the entire library community at eight meetings to be held around California this summer.

The study and ensuing discussions have been prompted by concerns among library leaders that the growing numbers of ethnic and racial minorities in the state's general population may lead to declining use of library services--because minorities are generally less well-educated, less affluent and may come from countries without the tradition of library use found in this country and in Europe.

Moreover, libraries, by virtue of the ways they organize and present their services, may present barriers to effective use by the unsophisticated user. For an ethnic minority, these barriers may be compounded by monolingual staff or the absence of minority staff, the lack of material and instructions for library use in the individual's language and the individual's own lack of familiarity with library use and services.

Since studies have shown that only 25% to 30% of the general population uses libraries, and that one-third of all library users account for two-thirds of their use, the RAND report raises serious questions about who is--and who is not--availing themselves of library services.

Libraries must carefully examine the "socioeconomic and cultural characteristics" of the particular communities they serve, the document says, to learn what cultural traditions exist toward reading, government and libraries, traditions that librarians can use to adapt delivery of services. For example, a library serving a large immigrant population may discover that members are used to getting information not from books, but from community kiosks. Or that assigning descriptive labels to sections of books rather than only providing their Dewey Decimal System number may enable users to find their way around the library more easily.

By the year 2000, 60% of Californians under age 20 will be minorities. Therefore, one strategy for libraries to meet the needs of an ever-growing minority population is to emphasize services to this age group. Since studies also show that children tend to introduce their parents to library use, closer coordination between the library's adult and children's services would be one way to introduce minority adults to library use.

Faced with declining budgets, libraries may not be able to continue to be "all things to all people." For example, in order to provide more materials in foreign languages, the library may have to buy fewer copies of best sellers.

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