Wayne Wiegand is a prominent expert on public libraries who titled his book, published this fall, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.
How big a part of our lives are libraries? Wiegand summed up key themes of his book by telling a conference at Marquette Law School on Thursday that libraries “are much more important than we previously thought they were.” They are vital parts of boosting the lives of millions of people and of America as a whole.
Those were key themes also of the packed-house, half-day conference, titled The Future of the American Public Library, in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall. Leading figures on the past and future of public libraries in America and in Milwaukee specifically described the past, present, and future of these often low-profile but central pillars of American life.
The conference had an underlying tone similar to a pep rally for libraries. Many in the audience were themselves librarians who applauded the depiction of libraries as places that adopt to and serve important community needs — inspiring young people, providing valuable information to everyone from job seekers to the curious, bringing together neighborhoods, and sometimes providing warm, reassuring places to those who need them.
Wiegand, a professor emeritus of library and information studies at Florida State University who was a long-time professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, said that, even in a greatly changing world of publishing, reading, and accessing information, support for public libraries remains strong. But, he said, states and localities are “literally killing” school libraries without understanding what they’re doing.
Wiegrand said the role of libraries is changing, but he was optimistic about their future. “There is no holy book in which God tells us what a library should be,” he said. “People make libraries, and they should make them to meet community needs.”
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll and the Law School’s professor of law and public policy, presented results from a September poll of Wisconsinites that showed that five out of six people said they live within walking distance or 15 minutes drive of a public library. “Fifteen minutes access to a library is pretty close to universal,” Franklin said.
Library use is also high – 56% said they had visited a library in the last twelve months and only 20% said they had never visited a library. Franklin said the results showed use was high among people who did not have children, but even higher among those who do.
Franklin said 37% said closing a local public library would have a major impact on them or their families, while 68% said such a closing would have a major impact on their community.
Milwaukee historian John Gurda – who is also the chair of the city’s library board – called libraries “an open door to the gathering wealth of our civilization” and places that positively shape lives, including his own.
But, he said, “Let no one doubt that these are challenging times for America’s public libraries,” as computers change the way people read and get information and as budgets tighten. He said financial support of the Milwaukee Public Library system has dropped more than 24% in constant dollars since 1999, meaning cuts in hours and purchasing of materials.
Gurda said the trends have turned upward in recent years. “We still have a great deal of lost ground to make up, but MPL (Milwaukee Public Library) is moving in the right direction,” he said.
Overall, Gurda said, libraries are responding creatively to serve their communities, but their core mission remains the same and remains important. “It’s the media that change, it’s not the mission,” Gurda said. “It’s the forms and not the philosophy.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Paula Kiely, director of the Milwaukee Public Library, spelled out some of the changes Gurda mentioned that have given the system new momentum.
They recounted a situation from a dozen years ago when a Milwaukee branch library on Villard Ave. on the north side was closed for budget reasons, triggering public outcry. Barrett, who became mayor shortly after that happened, said, in some ways, it proved to be a positive turning point. A new branch library was developed as part of a mixed-use building in the area. It has been very popular and the mixed-use model, which is more cost effective, is now being used to replace aging branch libraries in several other parts of Milwaukee.
Kiely said that when she became director of the system in 2006, she favored closing some branch libraries and consolidating into fewer, larger buildings. But the success of the mixed use model changed her position. Barrett said he wants to keep all branches open and he regards the branch libraries as anchors of their neighborhoods. Overall, every library in the city will have a new building or have undergone a major upgrade by 2020, he and Kiely said.
Barrett said demands on the city budget have presented challenges for libraries. “They’re up against the police budget and the fire budget, and those are tough budgets to be up against,” he said. But libraries also are important, he said.
And the future? Miguel Figueroa, director of the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries, said libraries remain “a really solid brand,” but what they offer is changing. He described innovative projects underway in places such as Philadelphia (a culinary literacy center), Chattanooga (an entrepreneurial center), and Cleveland (a digitized art collection at the Cleveland Art Museum that can link people to more information on the artworks).
“Maker spaces” and connected learning centers are being created as libraries strive for new ways to serve people and bring communities together, Figueroa said.
“The future is many, not one,” Figueroa said, describing directions libraries are moving.
But in that many, libraries will continue to be important and vibrant, speakers at the conference agreed.
To watch the conference, click here.