by Mardee Handler

Founded in 1833, the Peterborough Town Library in Peterborough, New Hampshire is the oldest tax-revenue supported library in the nation. If you visit its website, you’ll be greeted by an offer to follow the library on Facebook, attend a workshop to create an LED nightlight, borrow downloadable audio and eBooks and to get involved with its Library of the Future project.

It’s a perfect example of the past meeting the present and preparing for the future … and the evolution of the public library.

Despite significant changes driven primarily by technology, public libraries remain relevant fixtures in American infrastructure.

“Public libraries are important institutions that provide valuable resources and services to communities across the nation,” according to the most recent Public Libraries in the United States Survey published by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Based on fiscal year 2012 data, the survey found:

  • A total of 9,082 public libraries in the United States
  • Public libraries located in almost every community
  • The breakdown of public libraries by location as follows:
    • 4,061 in rural areas
    • 2,325 in suburbs
    • 2,209 in towns
    • 487 in cities
  • Most (96.4 percent) of the population lived within a public library service area
  • For every 100,000 people, there were 3.0 public libraries and 5.7 service outlets (branches or bookmobiles)

Do People Still Use Public Libraries?

The answer is, overwhelming, yes, although perhaps in different ways than they did 50 years ago.

A 2014 report entitled From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers -and beyond, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that more than two thirds of Americans are “actively engaged” with public libraries. Of these, roughly 30 percent are considered highly engaged, and another 39 percent deemed to have a medium level of engagement.

“Americans’ library habits do not exist in a vacuum,” the report said, finding a strong correlation between people’s involvement with public libraries and their overall use of economic, social, technological and cultural networks.

In addition, the Pew study found public library use to be strongly associated with key life events such as having a baby, looking for a job, searching for a college … in short, any type of situation that might call for research that could help a person make a decision or learn a new skill.

According to the IMLS Public Libraries Survey, there were 1.5 billion in-person visits to public libraries in the U.S. in 2012, reflecting a 10-year increase of 20.7 percent, but a slight decrease in physical visitation since its peak in fiscal year 2009.  The IMLS advises using this metric with caution, as it does not count or include virtual visits. “Much like retailers and businesses, public libraries have been increasing their virtual presence and their digital resources and services in order to meet the needs of the 21st century public.”

Programming Shifts: Libraries Change with the Times

If you are of a certain age, you may remember the public service announcement jingle: Library, library, more than a book …” which rings perhaps even truer today than it did when bell bottom jeans and platform shoes were on the cutting-edge of fashion.

Whether taking the shape of “homework help,” “tax tips,” or “lawyers in the library” programs, public libraries often bring in members of the community to offer no-cost tutoring or assistance in their areas of professional expertise.

While print books certainly remain on library shelves – and in demand – they’ve moved over, making room for audio books (on CD) and DVDs to join their ranks. In recent years, public libraries, through arrangements with OverDrive, 3M, Hoopla and others, are increasingly able to lend ebooks, along with digital audiobooks and videos to patrons.

No longer limited to story hours and author visits, today’s public libraries offer opportunities to learn new skills, and get together with others in the community. Following is a sampling of the eclectic programs and activities that libraries around the country are offering for every age and interest group, from infants to senior citizens – and this list just scratches the surface!

  • The Orange County Spinners meet monthly at the Garden Grove Regional Library (a member of the Orange County, California Public Library System) to knit, crochet, weave and otherwise craft.
  • In Madison, Wisconsin, wanna-be cyclists can participate in a Savvy City Cycling: Bicycle Commuting Workshop for Beginners at the Madison Public Library.
  • The Birmingham Public Library (Birmingham, Alabama) will be offering a workshop entitled Beyond the Basics of Genealogy: Census and Sensibility Using and Interpreting U.S. Census.
  • Adults and children over age 6 can participate in American Sign Language Classes for Beginners through the Central Arkansas Library System, a 14-library system whose main branch is Little Rock.
  • At the Hinsdale Public Library (Hinsdale, Illinois), patrons can attend a “Fab Lab” or “Meet the Makerbot” program to learn how to design and produce a masterpiece using 3D printing technology.
  • A relatively new program at a branch of the Kenton County Public Library (Independence, Kentucky) called Sensory Open Play is designed to engage young learners, especially those with autism and other sensory challenges.
  • The Scottsdale Public Library (Scottsdale, Arizona) offers a Financial Book Club, where members can discuss a book with a different financial theme each month.
  • Skip the library and head to the museum … The Seattle Public Library (Seattle, Washington) offers library patrons the opportunity to “check out” a museum pass using their library card.

A Public Library Boom or Bust?

Perhaps neither is true. “Through the opening and closing of public libraries across the nation, the number of public libraries in FY2009 … increased by a net gain of 151, an overall increase of 1.7 percent since FY2000,” according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

However, the growth in public libraries has been outpaced by the increase in population; therefore, the number of public libraries per capita decreased over that period.

The Municipal View: Who Owns Libraries?

That’s an easy question to answer: It depends. There is no hard and fast rule for library ownership in the United States. It varies by state and even within each state.

According to the IMLS 2009 Public Libraries in the United States Survey, 85.3 percent of public libraries are public agencies connected to some form of local government.

In 2009, public library ownership was broken down as follows:

  • 52.9% were part of a municipal government
  • 14.7% were part of a separate government entity (“library district”)
  • 9.8% were part of a county or parish
  • 3.4% had a multi-jurisdictional legal basis under an inter-governmental agreement
  • 2.0% were part of a school district
  • 1.0% were part of a city/county
  • 1.5% reported a legal basis of “other”

(The remaining 14.8 percent were operated by non-profit agencies; although privately controlled, they still met the legal definition of a public library in the states in which they were located.)

Source: Public Libraries Survey for Fiscal Year 2009, Institute of Museum and Library Services

Libraries that operate as special districts either lease the land from the municipality, or own it through a special deed, depending on the arrangement. They are governed by a Board of Trustees, an elected position.

Regardless of ownership, libraries are a community asset. From books to educational and social programming opportunities, public libraries offer ongoing opportunities to learn and connect – often, in the comfort of our own neighborhoods.