At the Gilpin County Public Library in Colorado, which serves a community of less than 6,000 people, a sign on the roadside advertises "Free coffee, internet, notary, phone, smiles, restrooms and ideas" to all who enter.
Indeed, all libraries, with their familiar rows of bookshelves and busy, helpful librarians, have remained reliably stable, as ubiquitous in towns throughout the U.S as the local firehouse or the post office. But it is perhaps this familiarity that makes the American library as an institution more vulnerable than ever, and has many wondering: What is in store for its future?
These days, the library's very existence is a question mark, and they face some of the steepest budget cuts in history. According to a Harris/Reader's Digest Poll from late 2010, nearly 40 percent of American mayors plan to reduce hours, shed employees or make other cutbacks in the coming months, while many county libraries have already eliminated branches entirely.
The South Branch Library in Evanston, Illinois, had been open since 1917. One Evanston resident, Barbara Lewis, told Patch that she had originally moved to the neighborhood only so she could walk to her local library. It closed last February.
In Dearborn, Michigan, one of four library branches was forced to close in September; an administrative librarian there said he didn't really believe it would close until it was actually happening. In Fenton-High Ridge, Missouri, they've lost 33 percent of library staff to attrition over the past five years, and a "self-checkout" system was recently put into place to control costs.
"Our interest income has also deteriorated, and that used to give us a bit of a cushion," said Pam Klipsch, the director of Missouri's Jefferson County Library system, which includes the Fenton-High Ridge branches. "We've been very hard hit by this whole recession, and we've had to cut back and cut back and cut back, so when staff leave us now, they just don't get replaced."
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently proposed a budget that would eliminate "268 currently vacant positions and lay off about 284 employees" from the library system. He was met by hundreds of protesters of all ages, including a group of fist-pumping pre-schoolers. The resulting "Save Chicago Public Libraries and Librarian Jobs" Facebook group now boasts over 2,000 members, but as of today the cuts are still looming.
In Detroit, public library officials, union members and commissioners have deadlocked in a battle over whether to close four of Detroit's 23 public library branches. Though Detroit's Public Library Commissioner, Russell Bellant, supports the closures, administrators and union officials are hanging on for dear life, hoping to save their libraries and the hundreds of jobs they stand to lose.
Though 91 percent of those surveyed for the same Harris Poll said that their local library "improves the quality of life" in their community, the institution remains under attack across the country and worldwide.
Who exactly is to blame, the communities or the libraries themselves? And what will be lost if the library fades into obsolescence?
A MODERN LIBRARY'S ROLE
Maureen Sullivan, president-elect of the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library nonprofit in the world, said people don't realize how essential their local public library is until it's too late. When it comes to making budget decisions -- "Should we cut funds from the police department or the library?" -- local lawmakers are putting the library at the bottom of the totem poll, and state governments are not stepping in to save them.
"I hear people on a regular basis talking about how the library is the most trusted organization in the community and it being such a public good," Sullivan said. "But many people in our communities have simply taken the library for granted."
Marcia Warner, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the ALA, added that many citizens only start paying attention when libraries begin "cutting branches or cutting hours." Then suddenly they become aware of the problem.
"But it's too late then," Warner said.
Klipsch, the Jefferson County Library system director, thinks a lot of people are confused about how libraries are actually funded, and that's part of a larger issue. "We get people who think all the books are donated by publishers and all the staff are volunteers," she said, laughing a little at the idea. "They have no idea we have to buy books and pay staff, and that librarians don't just sit around all day and occasionally put books back on a shelf."
But the library is serving multiple roles, especially during hard times. For those who cannot afford to sit at a coffee shop and buy a "four-dollar latte" to use their computer on somebody else's Wi-Fi, Warner says, the library provides "the whole shebang": a quiet location to work in private, a staff member willing to answer in-depth questions (about everything from applying for unemployment benefits to where one might learn more about beekeeping), and a meeting place for the community, not to mention those free film and book rentals and an increasingly long list of e-book and digital reading options.
According to the most recent Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (PLFTAS), libraries and librarians provide essential services that are found scarcely anywhere else, especially to citizens who are struggling economically. Seventy percent of libraries indicated that their Internet services increased in 2010, and 65 percent report that they provide the only source of free public access to computers in their community. Eighty-one percent of Americans who have been "economically impacted" by the recession have a library card today, as supposed to 68 percent of Americans who have not been affected, according to a 2010 study from the Online Computer Library Center.
In Jefferson County, a new program eliminates overdue book fines in exchange for canned food donations. "We forgive the fines, and then provide cans to local food pantries," said library director Klipsch. "We have people who come in, they're literally living in their cars. We give them a safe place to park. It's going on three years and things are not getting any better."
Not only are libraries being used more than ever before, in more ways than ever, but modern librarians have also lengthened their reach, spanning the range of technological and social changes that have taken place in their field over the past ten years.
THE LIBRARIAN ADAPTS
Erin Schreiner, who recently received her Masters in Library Science from Long Island University, with a concentration in rare books and special collections, doesn't think the general public realizes what services are provided by their local libraries these days. She believes that if more people were aware of these services, they might visit their local library more often.
When a friend of Schreiner's was looking to research some of her long-lost Jewish relatives in Calcutta, she started the same way most of us would, with a simple Google search, but she came up empty. Schreiner suggested that her friend head to the New York Public library, home to one of the most expansive Judaica collections in the world. There, she could consult a specialist trained in genealogical queries.
"My friend was like, 'I could just go do that? It's free?'" Schreiner remembers. "People don't realize that their library is this incredible provider of specific information. We shouldn't have to remind them."
The modern librarian is a social networking guru as well as a research specialist. Like many of us, they've grown up with Google and Wikipedia and every blog and online journal in existence, so they know how to navigate the online world, while also providing the services the library has always offered.
"Certain [librarians] used to be able to sit in a room and catalogue books and never have to interact with the public," said Schreiner. "But now if you're working in a library, you're expected to collaborate and be a part of a living organism, to help real people. There's a lot of focus now on the personal side of librarianship and helping people in a more specialized way."
Marilyn Johnson, author of "This Book is Overdue!," wrote that the modern librarian is indeed technologically savvy but also respects a patron's privacy -- and that distinction is important. "A profession dedicated to privacy in charge of our public computers? That's brilliant," she wrote in the LA Times last year. "[Librarians] represent the best civic value out there, an army of resourceful workers that can help us compete in the world."
Still, no matter how successful libraries are at serving their current purpose, it doesn't seem to matter, and they remain at risk. The country's largest circulating library, in Queens, N.Y., was named the best system in the U.S. by Library Journal in 2009, Johnson pointed out, yet its budget was due to shrink by a third. Since most libraries receive the majority of their funding from local and state governments, they remain at the mercy of a struggling economy and are looking at many other options.
THE LASTING RAMIFICATIONS
What can libraries do?
Warner of the Public Library Association admitted that all local services are being threatened -- libraries aren't unique in that regard -- but library directors need to "toot their own horn" a bit more than they have been. She suggested that leaders step up in the community and let their voices be heard, embracing the library's essential role as a "community convener."
While most libraries are still funded locally, and others, like the Jefferson County Library system in Missouri, are levied by the voting public (if the value of appraised property goes up, the library "rolls back the levy" to compensate), Warner also recommends that libraries establish private foundations to offset budget cuts. ALA president-elect Sullivan points to these nonprofits as positive examples, and the ALA itself has received many generous donations from the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. A Rhode Island library received a $10,000 donation from Alec Baldwin after he read an article in the New York Times about its potential demise, and other volunteers have stepped in to keep libraries running.
Klipsch, director of the Jefferson County system, recently set up a private foundation so her branches could receive outside funding, but these things take time to initiate and get going, she said, and it could be a while before libraries reap the benefits of these funds.
"We're working on it, but in the meantime, we can't pretend that the cuts aren't affecting us. We have to be really up front, and we're trying to be. But everybody around here is hurting, so we need to take all the steps we can."
Indeed, libraries have the potential to be leaders at the forefront of this Age of Information, in addition to serving as community centers and book lenders and places where one can sit and spend a quiet afternoon. But without the necessary technological and staff-related improvements -- and the funds to implement them -- libraries, especially those in rural and suburban areas, will languish.
Can they survive this current economy, with so much -- and so many lawmakers -- against them?
"This country is where it is today because of our heritage -- and the library has had a whole range of cultural and educational effects," Sullivan said. But if funding continues to decrease, "we really have to think about what the lasting ramifications will be."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the "self-checkout system" installed by a library in Fenton-High Ridge, Missouri, was put in place to cut back further on library staff. Pam Klipsch, the director of Missouri's Jefferson County Library system, assures us this is not the case. The error has been corrected.