When Forbes.com published an article in June declaring that a master’s degree in library and information science is the worst type of post-graduate degree based on career earning potential, the reaction from the library community was one of dismay. Librarians responded on blogs, email lists, and various social media, emphasizing the noneconomic reasons to earn an MLS—primarily the desire to have a career focused on delivering public service rather than becoming wealthy and also the widely acknowledged high levels of career satisfaction among librarians. (In response to the Forbes ranking, ALA President Maureen Sullivan wrote a statement that was later cited in a Washington Post blog post.)
Yet another major reason why the Forbes.com article received so much traction in the library community is that it reflects the current fears and apprehension that exist among librarians and other public service professionals. The underlying issue is that there’s a significant problem for librarianship when it comes to articulating a public benefit message. In this age of austerity, all agencies of the public good—not just libraries—are under attack.
Since the recession began, budgets for public libraries, public schools, public health services, and other state and local government agencies devoted to the public good have been cut substantially, limiting their ability to serve their communities.
Based on 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, 584,000 public-sector jobs in the United States were lost between June 2009 and April 2012; that is 2.5% of all the local, state, and federal government jobs that existed before the prolonged economic downturn began. State budget shortfalls have ranged from $107 billion to $191 billion between 2009 and 2012, and current projections place state budget shortfalls at $55 billion for 2013, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This stands in stark contrast to other recessions of the past several decades, during and after which the number of public-sector jobs actually increased.
All politics is . . . national?
Contrary to Forbes’s analysis, librarians are not poorly paid. Within the realm of public-sector occupations, BLS data shows a higher median annual wage for librarians than for social workers, dispatchers, firefighters, K–12 teachers, school counselors, and special educators, among others. While librarians are paid less on average than police officers, nurses, and college faculty, librarianship involves less danger than the first two professions and requires less education than the third. From a public-sector perspective, librarianship is not a poorly paid career choice, especially for people who want to serve the public good.
But serving the public good no longer has much political value; instead, all public agencies need to be able to demonstrate a tangible contribution, both in societal and economic terms. This may be reflected in the BLS data that suggests a 7% (designated as slower than average) growth rate for library positions over the next decade.
While libraries have employed a range of measures to articulate their value, they have relied on terminology from other fields—such as economic return on investment and monetary worth—rather than develop their own return-on-investment language to capture the real contributions of libraries. Staying in reactive mode to political threats and responding with generalizations will not be successful in a political climate driven by austerity measures.
The contemporary library
Since this prolonged economic downturn began, public library usage has skyrocketed. People come to seek help finding a job, applying for social services, and learning new digital skills, as well as for access to technology and reading materials they can no longer afford to buy. Studies by ALA and others have shown that public libraries are fielding tens of millions more in-person and online visits annually since the economic downturn began; most libraries have seen an average increase of 25% in overall usage, but some libraries have had to handle up to a 500% increase in usage, according to Advances in Librarianship, Vol. 34: Librarianship in Times of Crisis.
The contemporary library is a mix of community center and community service center, with librarians simultaneously acting as information experts, educators, and social workers. The library has become a center for early childhood education, digital literacy and technology education, employment training, and many other learning opportunities central to communities. We are well aware that the days of the library as solely a repository of print materials are long gone. The library is a central community space that serves increasingly diverse populations, many of whom rely on the library for both cultural and intellectual integration. For most people outside the library community, however, this new reality has not been clearly demonstrated.
The influence of the internet
In 1994, when the study was first conducted, just 20.9% of public libraries were connected to the internet. By 2004, free public internet access in public libraries was nearly universal; 99.6% of all public library outlets were connected to the internet and 98.9% offered public access computing for their users, transforming libraries into community service centers for internet access and training—the only such location available at no charge in most communities around the country.
The area of e-government services—which includes such vital functions as paying taxes, applying for social services, enrolling children in school, and many other major life needs—provides an excellent example. In 2011, 91.8% of libraries provided assistance to patrons in understanding how to access and use e-government websites; 96.6% provided assistance to patrons in applying for or accessing e-government services; and 70.7% helped patrons complete e-government forms, according to Libraries Connect Communities, the Summer 2011 digital supplement of American Libraries. None of these library roles existed 10 years ago. Additionally, 50.2% of libraries reported that they were called on to explain how government programs work. In these cases, librarians have to serve both as information experts and as experts in the functioning of the programs, a sizable addition to their duties.
Combining technology access and the skills and creativity native to the information professions, libraries have used the capacities of the internet to remake libraries into:
- The one place that guarantees free public internet access and education for those with no access, limited access, or limited digital skills;
- The main community resource for teaching digital literacy and providing digital inclusion;
- The primary access point and training resource for e-government information, communication, and services;
- A resource for early childhood education, homework help, continuing education, and distance education;
- A key part of emergency response and recovery in many parts of the country;
- The center of unique partnerships with other community organizations to meet pressing community needs, such as the Baltimarket program, through which Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library and the city health department bring access to groceries to the food deserts in Baltimore; and
- A holistic community service agency that is more central to the needs of its communities than ever before.
These represent some trends across the nation and do not include the internet-enabled services and resources developed by libraries to meet the individual needs of their member communities.
The wealthier members of society do not frequently need these types of resources and therefore can easily be unaware of the library’s importance in the lives of so many Americans—especially as the country’s population continues to grow more demographically and culturally diverse. Relying only on their childhood image of the library some 30, 40, or 50 years ago, some people who are financially advantaged view the library as completely dispensable, particularly in the era of Google and mobile devices. Unfortunately, they also frequently serve as politicians, policymakers, and major financial contributors to political campaigns.
Austerity’s poster child
Though it was just an article in a magazine for investors, the Forbes piece resonates with the anxieties of the library community. The article can also serve a far greater cause, however, by inspiring libraries to fight back against austerity and the abandonment of the public good by politicians and policymakers. We must get a concerted and forceful message to the people who play politics, fund politicians, and make policies about what libraries really do and how many individuals and communities rely on them. Otherwise, libraries are destined to remain the poster child for the age of austerity.
We should not be waiting quietly for the next wave of cuts or defending libraries in idealized terms. It is time for us to join the fight with a consistent, strong message based on data and designed for politicians and policymakers at all levels of government across the country.
As conveyed by the types of societal contributions made by internet-enabled libraries, the library community has ample tangible examples and impacts to prove its value and contributions. The authors of this article have already seen how the approach of demonstrating value can shape the discourse about public support for a library. The Information Policy & Access Center at the University of Maryland makes available online a range of tools and products based on data about library contributions in areas such as e-government, digital literacy and education, partnerships, and employment services.
Library directors have informed us that they have used these products to prevent budget cuts by presenting concrete evidence of their library’s contributions to the community; in some cases, we have been told, the data has even helped to increase support. In addition, efforts such as the Public Library Association’s Turning the Page 2.0 and the Edge public access technology benchmarking initiative, both supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are designed to help libraries develop data-based advocacy approaches to demonstrate the true value libraries bring to their communities.
More members of the library community need to commit to creating materials that clearly articulate through tangible data the impacts of libraries, and libraries need to actively use such materials.
Only by proactively using data to fight against the currents of austerity can libraries reverse the direction of the present political discourse. Those in the profession and library supporters understand what libraries do and know that they are badly undervalued by society. But this message must reach those who are not members of the library community. Instead of being upset by the Forbes.com piece, let’s use it to give Libraryland a much-needed jolt. Demonstrating the real value of libraries to those in power is essential—and long past overdue.
JOHN CARLO BERTOT is professor and codirector of the Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC), College of Information Studies, University of Maryland; PAUL T. JAEGER is associate professor and codirector of iPAC; and LINDSAY C. SARIN is MLS program coordinator and research fellow at iPAC.