The Upside of Fewer People Asking Librarians for Help

Even as more people are using libraries, technology has freed staff to help out in surprising ways.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Sep 9, 2016· 2 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.

Since the advent of the internet and e-readers, there have been plenty of predictions about the end of public libraries. Who needs to go browse the stacks when the answer to any question is easily accessible from a smartphone and a book can be downloaded in seconds?

Or so goes the thinking. According to the results, released Friday, of a Pew Research Center survey on Americans’ attitudes toward libraries, use of libraries is up, people find them useful, and they still want to check out printed books.

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More survey respondents said they had visited a physical library or a bookmobile in the past 12 months—48 percent, up from 44 percent in 2015. A full 77 percent of folks also said that “public libraries provide them with the resources they need,” and 66 percent said that shutting down a facility “would have a major impact on their community.” Roughly two-thirds of people who had visited a library or a bookmobile said they’d done so to check out a book.

The survey also indicated that librarians are an underused resource. Only 35 percent of library patrons surveyed in 2016 said they asked a librarian for help, down from 50 percent in 2012.

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That isn’t evidence that the job of the librarian is obsolete. Instead, said Eva Mitnick, director of the engagement and learning division at the Los Angeles Public Library, these results reflect the ways “help” from a librarian is changing.

“Now you can Google an answer when you used to just have to ask the librarian,” Mitnick said. “It’s not that [librarians] need to be experts imparting knowledge. We’re really moving into a role where instead of being gatekeepers, we’re facilitators. We’re learning along with everybody else.”

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In 2015, the Los Angeles Public Library won the nation’s highest honor for libraries, the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The award recognized the way the library engages with the community—it hosts hundreds of events, programs, and classes—at its 73 branches and throughout the area.

Research released by Pew in April found that a notable portion of Americans “do not know that libraries offer learning-related programs and material” beyond lendable books. But in Los Angeles and other cities across the nation, people learn useful life skills, such as financial literacy, how to become citizens, or how to do their taxes, at the library. According to Pew’s latest data, nearly 30 percent of library users had attended a class, a program, or a lecture, up from 17 percent in 2015.

On Tuesdays, librarians at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles offer free help to people who don’t know how to operate their electronic devices. “It’s like a digital petting zoo, where we can just show how things work to people who might be confused by their phone or tablet,” Mitnick said. Patrons may not always realize “those classes are being taught by, or organized by, librarians.”

Traditional activities – borrowing books or reading – dominate library use, but people are also attending classes or other programs

The real secret to Los Angeles’ success might be its outreach librarians, eight individuals whose full-time job is to bring knowledge and resources—also known as “help”—out into the community. Pew found that only 7 percent of survey respondents said that they had had some kind of contact with an outreach librarian in the past 12 months.

“They’ll go into the DMV and talk to people standing in line about our services and sign them up for library cards,” Mitnick said, giving one example of LAPL outreach librarians’ work. All are bilingual in English and Spanish and might also “go to preschools, community centers, [and] clinics, where they hold hands-on workshops with parents of young children, showing them how to interact with their kids in ways that build those important preliteracy skills,” Mitnick said. Thanks to the work of these outreach librarians, participation in the LAPL’s online tutoring classes for kids jumped 22 percent last year.

Mitnick believes libraries are here to stay because people are hungry for engagement, which could be a key reason the classes and workshops are so popular. “They’re really enjoying the library as one of the few places where you can interact with folks, which is one thing that we seem to be losing a bit with the internet—that face-to-face thing,” she said.

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