Future Focus: 7 Trends
MHLS Across The Board | Summer 2006
In the last few years major studies of library service and attitudes have been released. The first was the 2005 OCLC Study, “Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources;” the second was the Americans for Libraries Council/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation June 2006 Study, “Long Overdue: A Fresh Look at Public Attitudes about Libraries;’ and the third was the MHLS focus groups for the next five-year Plan of Service. The results show seven common themes.
- Libraries are seen as having the potential to help solve community problems. The “Long Overdue” report states that Americans see libraries as potential solutions to many communities’ most pressing problems, like adult literacy and helping new immigrants adjust to their new community. Participants in the MHLS focus groups also mentioned the growing use of libraries as locations for community events and social connections for families, teens and seniors.
- Libraries are facing tougher competition for funding. Although many people, especially community leaders, recognize the importance of libraries in their community, they seem less able to support libraries with funding. Indeed many people have no understanding of how libraries are funded or the value they bring to the community. MHLS was not surprised by the findings announced in the “Long Overdue” report. We had heard echoes of this national pattern earlier in the year through our focus groups. Member libraries clearly communicated that their primary challenge is making the case for support in their communities.
- Libraries have increased in value, but that has not been recognized. The number of resources in any library has increased exponentially, but non-user focus groups conducted by MHLS revealed that many people still think of libraries as buildings with books, and that we find those books using old fashioned card catalogs. Librarians reported that large numbers of people just don’t understand how the library has changed in the past twenty years; that they don’t realize what is available at the library or through the library’s web site; that they don’t understand how area libraries work together to provide better service. We are facing a critical awareness deficit, and need to work harder to help nonuser’s understand the value of libraries and to harness our supporter’s enthusiasm so they will spread the good word for us.
- Patrons are interacting with libraries online. The only surprise here is the degree to which this is true. The number of online users jumped by more than 23 percent from 2004-2005 (OCLC, 2005). We are reaching a tipping point where online usage will be a normal library function and the primary way some patrons interact with our libraries.
- The Library building has become a community space. In all the studies this is a significant trend. People are looking for public space in their communities and libraries are there to fill the need. While this is clear, it is important to for us to keep in mind that people expect our buildings to be clean, bright, well maintained and comfortable. They expect open hours that fit their lifestyle and expect a higher level of service from staff than they may have in the past.
- People are learning technology at the library. Library staff report significant increases in the demand to teach people the basics of technology. It is more than just teaching email. For example, we have seen an influx of job seekers needing help with online applications, adding an extra dimension to staff responsibilities, which drives home the need to continually update staff skills. Another example is the recent addition of downloadable audio books to most library web sites. Libraries are continually implementing new advances. Staff must become more comfortable with technology and better skilled in educating patrons.
- People have high expectations. Our society has become more customer-driven and as a result customers expect more. Staff report patrons want faster service, more immediate attention and more resources in more formats. The OCLC study suggested that our competitors are Google and Amazon which are continually implementing new services and raising the bar for service.
Two Crucial Challenges
- Marketing/Advocacy/Awareness: We need to find ways to educate the public about what we have, help community leaders see the value of libraries to their community, and show people that the small amount of tax money spent on libraries brings huge returns.
- Quality Staff: Our staff need to be of a caliber that can handle technology changes, find answers quickly, and deal with a wide range of patron attitudes and behavior. This means better training and offering better salaries and benefits to attract and keep more qualified workers.These two critical areas will be a major part of the next MHLS Plan of Service to be submitted to the NYS Division of Library Development this fall. We thank all of the directors, staff and trustees who participated in our focus groups earlier this year. Their input will help us craft a long range plan that meets the current needs of member libraries and anticipates some of the challenges we will face in the coming years.