As we celebrate National Library Week this year, public libraries across America face a challenging future of diminished funding coupled with high demand for library services and a burgeoning world of digital formats. Libraries must evolve to maintain relevancy in an electronic environment, but not forsake our traditional roles that many still need and value.
As we enter our 140th year of service to our area, the Akron-Summit County Public Library continues to provide educational support for children, lifelong learning opportunities for adults, and free access to technology. We also have developed a relatively recent focus on community engagement.
Providing resources and services to aid ongoing educational efforts in our region is a longstanding commitment of our library system. Examples of this commitment are library involvement in Summit County Executive Russ Pry’s early childhood initiative, First Things First, and our annual summer reading program, which helps students avoid a loss in reading level over the summer months.
Because learning never stops, we have a myriad of programs for adults, from computer training to genealogical research.
Our library system still provides what we have since the 1870s (books), since the 1960s (audio) and since the 1980s (video); in 2013 all of these are increasingly published in digital formats. We now have over 12,000 ebooks available for borrowing, and that collection will continue to grow.
Meanwhile, we also provide free computer access to thousands of people in our area who have no laptop, tablet or phone data plan. Our staff engages in technology training each day, helping people apply for jobs online or seek public assistance through a portal of e-government. Access to technology for every citizen is a crucial issue in a democratic society, and the public library plays a key role in bridging that well-known digital divide.
Emphasis on community engagement has developed most noticeably in the past decade. We have embraced the notion that our library can offer value as partner, contributor or collaborator in community initiatives of virtually every stripe. Open to the public 69 hours per week, the Akron-Summit County Public Library has a broad reach into our area, with 18 locations, 285,000 registered cardholders, free meeting spaces and varied mechanisms for information distribution, both paper and digital. Such a reach can be helpful to almost anything positive happening in the lives of our residents.
From January to mid-April each year we provide space for income tax help through the AARP, and we help spread the word on the availability of the Earned Income Tax Credit to those eligible. While the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank’s Harvest for Hunger had food collection barrels at all library locations in March, Project Learn of Summit County uses our facilities throughout the year to help adults prepare for and pass the GED test.
Every public institution has to weigh its resources and organizational capacity when choosing what activities to pursue. Despite a $4 million loss in annual funding since 2008 (15 percent reduction in total funding), and a corresponding 15 percent reduction in staff through attrition, our library system has chosen to make community engagement a priority. Integrating the library further into the fabric of community activity provides value extending beyond typical library output measures such as the number of items borrowed.
A recent example combines educational support and community engagement. In 2012, we offered the first Mind, Body & Sole program, a wellness-oriented complement to our usual summer reading program. This program’s primary partners include Summit County Public Health, the Akron Marathon, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and Metro Parks, Serving Summit County. The concept of coupling reading with fitness activities struck a chord with our customers last year, causing a 30 percent increase in overall summer reading participation.
In that first year, over 1,000 participants completed both the reading and wellness parts of the program. We plan to make Mind, Body & Sole bigger and better this year.
As a tax-supported institution, our community engagement makes the most of our residents’ public investment, working with others toward common goals. Rather than viewing the library as simply a repository of shelved items, we are striving for a broader role as multifaceted contributor to our area’s quality of life. This does not mean abandoning our traditional functions as providers of books, audio and video, but it does mean deploying our staff in new, different and creative ways.
Increased community engagement will enable broader educational support, and more varied access to technology. The modern public library is uniquely positioned to contribute to almost any community initiative. Like so many in our area, we are simply trying to do our part.
Jennings is the director of the Akron-Summit County Library. National Library Week runs from April 14 to April 20.