An Unexpected City Is at the Forefront of Reimagining the Public Library

A Pew Research Center survey found that plenty of Americans don’t know about the many services libraries offer, but Los Angeles is bucking the trend.
(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)
Apr 12, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Nearly two weeks of protests over a plan to turn a library in a South London community into a gym have ignited a debate in the U.K. about the role of the modern library—and whether it’s still an essential part of the neighborhood. After all, in the internet age, when the answers to a question are a few smartphone clicks away, who needs a mere repository of books?

Although the results of a Pew Research Center survey released late last week found that the number of U.S. residents visiting public libraries has dropped, people still believe they serve an essential purpose in the community. At the same time, “notable shares of Americans do not know that libraries offer learning-related programs and material,” wrote the authors of an accompanying report.

But a model for how to educate the public about the changing role of the modern library can be found in a place many Americans might not associate with books: Los Angeles.

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The 73-branch Los Angeles Public Library system has proven to be on the forefront of engaging the public in an expanded vision of a library. “For a long time, people knew exactly what a library had. It was a place for books and a place where you could get your answers to your questions,” Peter Persic, public relations and marketing director of the Los Angeles Public Library, told TakePart. “But in the last decade, the services that libraries provide have radically changed. It’s always a challenge to educate people about the new offerings.”

Last year, the system won a National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor presented to a public library for service to the community. “We were thrilled to be acknowledged on a national level for the kinds of service that we have and the engagement that people have with the library,” said Persic.

About 14.1 million people visited libraries in Los Angeles in 2015, down slightly from 14.5 million the year before. But Persic said the number of items being borrowed jumped 4 percent, to 16 million, and there was a 51 percent increase in digital media—e-books or audiobooks—being checked out. “It’s possible that some of those people, instead of coming into the library, were accessing and using the library through our website, which is what we hear is happening anecdotally,” he said.

Nationally, the number of people physically engaging with libraries is down, according to the Libraries and Learning survey from Pew. It found that only 44 percent of U.S. residents had paid a visit to a public library within the previous 12 months, down from 53 percent in 2012. Nevertheless, 76 percent of respondents said they “believe local libraries serve the educational needs of their communities and families.”

Pew’s researchers analyzed data from the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland on the availability of programs—such as GED preparation or career-related programs—and whether participants were aware of such resources. Although about 62 percent of local libraries offer career resources, 38 percent said they were unaware that libraries had such material. Fewer GED prep programs are available—only 26 percent of libraries have one—so it might make sense that 47 percent of respondents said they didn’t know if their libraries offered one.


Where the Los Angeles Public Library really serves as an example to other library systems is that it works hard to raise awareness about some of its less traditional offerings, such as educational services. It helps, said Persic, that its 73 locations embed it into every community in the city. “We have a very strong relationship through the schools, through the friends groups, through the community groups, through the neighborhood councils, through the elected officials, city council members, and the mayor,” he explained.

L.A.’s library system also has two full-time librarians working exclusively on social media, which is a marked difference from what’s happening in most communities. “I was just participating in a webinar on social media that Library Journal put on, and 60 percent of the participants said they don’t have a person dedicated to social media at all,” said Persic.

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Pew’s survey also found that usage is lowest among Latinos and Americans earning $30,000 or less. Reaching those demographics “is challenging for us also,” said Persic. In a unique effort, the Los Angeles Public Library employs outreach librarians who attend community events, church services, and neighborhood group meetings to inform the public about the kinds of less traditional services the branches offer.

“They are often members of the specific communities they’re trying to reach, so in the case of the Latino community, they speak Spanish. We provide them with the kind of material they need to leave behind and give people the information in a way that’s culturally sensitive and that resonates with a particular audience,” Persic said.

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Thanks to outreach efforts, participation in an online tutoring program for children is up 22 percent from last year, said Persic. Similarly, there’s been a 36 percent increase in attendance for citizenship classes and a 66 percent hike in the number of people going to financial literacy classes.

Persic admitted that people are “oftentimes surprised” by how popular the library is in Los Angeles because they don’t think of L.A. as a city that is focused on literacy. But, he said, “L.A. is definitely a book and a library city.”