Conversation: The State of American Libraries

BY Paul Solman  June 29, 2010 at 5:11 PM EST

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This week, librarians from around the country have gathered in Washington for the annual meeting of the American Library Association to meet with authors, share experiences and discuss topics ranging from budget cuts, branch closings and staff reductions, to technology upgrades and innovations.

To discuss the state of our library system, I talked to Camila Alire, president of the ALA, by phone today:

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[A transcript is after the jump.]

JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me now from Washington by phone is Camila Alire, president of the American Library Association. Welcome to you.

CAMILA ALIRE: Good afternoon, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to talk to you first about some of the big challenges facing your world. One is economic, of course, with serious budget cuts. What do you see happening? How are libraries being hit?

CAMILA ALIRE: They’re being hit pretty hard, you know. They’re having to make budget cuts across the country, and it’s in public libraries, academic and school libraries. And when they have to do that, they have to cut resource and services, and they have to cut staff, and that affects their community, their users. Users are the customers that are hurt by these kinds of budget cuts.

JEFFREY BROWN: What then happens around the country? What are libraries doing?

CAMILA ALIRE: Interestingly enough all the stories that we have been getting is that people have rallied around libraries. When they’re hearing that a branch might be cut or that they are going Sunday-hours and even closing libraries, the community has rallied, they’ve been able to get grassroots support and it’s really been through those grassroots support systems that they have been able to have some affect. It might be that the branch library is not going to close, but they’ll cut their hours.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, just anecdotally, on my way to work today I stopped at my local library in Northern Virginia, and they said that they were opening later starting soon, and I’m not sure but that must be related.

CAMILA ALIRE: Well, I’m sure it is. And what libraries try to do in the first round of cuts is, well all their cuts, they are trying to minimize the effect of these cuts on their customers. But the problem is as you continue to whittle away, whittle away, it affects all the customers, all the users.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other big challenge, of course, is technology and that’s a vast subject in terms of how it must be affecting libraries. Talk to me generally — how big a subject is that when you all gather?

CAMILA ALIRE: It’s a big subject. We’ve embraced technology because our users, their expectations get more technologically advanced year-by-year, so libraries, public libraries, school libraries, academic libraries and special libraries have all embraced technology. You know, using mobile devices to get to people in terms of reference services. They’ll do text reference — that’s the latest thing now. They’re into e-books. Those are just a few of the technological services and programs that libraries are involved in and, you know, our customers expect that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does that mean for being a librarian? Does that mean something different now than it did not that long ago in terms of training?

CAMILA ALIRE: You know, Jeff, I think it really does, and I’ve talked to library school students all over the country this year and I tell them this is the most exciting time to be going to library school, to be coming into the profession, because these students are tech savvy, you know, they know everything about library 2.0. They know everything about the different mobile devices and all their capabilities. They know that they can just click on a mobile device and get to specific information. They come in, they are part of the solution in terms of thinking broadly and thinking ahead and thinking how we could incorporate the best technological advances in our libraries. Our public libraries listen to their communities. They do community analysis, and when they hear the community say we want more access, you know, 24/7 access. We want more electronic databases; they try to respond.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, you’ve talked about new devices, you talked about the e-book, something we’ve talked a lot about here is the future of the book, the form it will take, who reads it and what do they read on and how do they read. How much is that discussion affecting your world as you think about the library of the future?

CAMILA ALIRE: Well, it’s interesting because I think the lay person spends more time wondering about the future of the book than the librarians do. We want to be able to provide what our communities, what our customers want. E-books are really popular and they are getting even more popular now. In 2007 our public libraries provided about — 38 percent of their collections were e-books. That rose to 55 percent in 2009. The challenges in the readers and, also you know, I was just in a session yesterday where one of the librarians reported that people can just download a particular title, an e-book title onto their device, and then they have it; they don’t have to come in to the library. They check it out virtually. We’ll still have the printed words. But, you know, libraries have transformed. We have changed for a long, long time. I mean, we first only provided the printed the word. Then we were hearing from our communities that they wanted it on visual resources, so we did that. And they were saying, well, you know, we would like more online databases. Most people love the catalog. I am sure you can remember the card catalog, but you know there aren’t a lot card catalogs around anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, as you move more and more towards a digital library, I mean, the fact that I can get information online from libraries all around the world, you don’t see that as threat to the role of my local library? They are still going to be —

CAMILA ALIRE: Not at all. In fact, you know, thanks for mentioning the digitization. The beauty about digitization — I mean, it’s going to be more prevalent, but the beauty about it is really with our special collections and our archives. There are materials that libraries have in their special collections that are almost priceless and you have to go to a special department, a special room and then you have to be very careful about using those materials. And now libraries are scanning those materials, digitizing them so that anybody in the world can now access that particular special item, so it goes from being very local to providing that item worldwide.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The changing world of libraries. Camila Alire is the president of the American Library Association. Thanks for talking with us.

CAMILA ALIRE: Thank you very much, Jeff.