“How Do You Measure?”: The Value of Public Libraries

by Lindsay Russell // April 16, 2019

WASHINGTON – It was a chilly Friday afternoon in March when I opened the heavy front doors to the Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library in Northwest Washington, D.C.  The wind scattered leaves around the front sidewalk and the first few drops of rain began to fall.

The inside of the library was warm – both in temperature and atmosphere. The building was a quiet hive of activity. All around the library, people were milling about. In the front foyer, people trying to escape the cold sat on benches, flipping through magazines and enjoying the warmth. The study rooms were full of students huddled over laptops and textbooks. Teenagers sat chatting and laughing in their own corner of the second floor. A few logged into the computers to play video games as they celebrated the end of another long school week. A library staffer greeted the students with a smile as they arrived and signed them in on a clipboard. People logged into the upstairs computers sat quietly, some writing, most checking Facebook or watching YouTube videos. There were almost no empty armchairs. The building was a sea of humanity, people sharing a community space but existing in their own quiet worlds on a drizzly Friday afternoon.

Major news media outlets have reported in recent years that libraries are a dying industry, comparing them to video-rental companies like Blockbuster.1 However, it’s a common misconception that the rise of the digital age has rendered public libraries obsolete. Libraries have seen an increase in visitors since the dawn of the internet age in the early ‘90s. Between 1994 and 2013, there was an estimated 16.7 percent increase in the number of public library patrons. In 2013, 497,600,000 more people used a library than in 1994.2 That’s an increase of half a billion people. That same time period also saw the increase of 809,350,000 public library items in circulation.3 Public libraries are not dying. With 4 million Americans visiting a public library each day, the numbers tell us they may be stronger than ever.4

Even as they acclimate to the digital age, libraries have not lost their ability to connect with community members through books. Leo Herman, 10, describes himself as an avid reader. He fondly remembers his mom reading to him before he knew how. When I asked him how he’s been impacted by the presence of a library in his Chevy Chase neighborhood, he cut me off quickly.

“First of all, it saves a lot of money… like a ‘bagillion’ dollars,” he rushed to tell me. “Second of all, my weekend? Nothing to do? Go to the library!”

Leo’s mother, Katie Herman, recalled those formative moments in her boys’ childhoods. “They knew how to find and check out books and could do it all on their own,” she said. “I credit those wonderful hours in the library as having a big impact on our kids’ reading ability and love for literature today.”

While the Herman family uses their local branch for checking out books, libraries offer far more than reading. Maddy McGunagle, a policy intern for the American Library Association, explained the presence of public libraries as a social justice issue.

Public library visits peaked in 2009 and 2010, the worst years of the Great Recession that began in 2008.5 Americans, then and now, need an indoor public space to just be without the burden of an economic transaction. Libraries not only offer that safe space, they also provide important services that would cost money elsewhere, like access to internet. McGunagle explained that because of the prevalence of smartphones, many Americans take their internet access for granted. According to a Pew Research Center Study, one third of Americans do not have access to the internet at home.6

“It’s discrimination in some ways,” McGunagle said of the disparity between Americans with and without access to computers and internet. “What makes someone more worthy of having access to the internet? Access to applying for jobs? Creating resumes?” she asked. Free library access to technology helps bridge that divide.

Safe, indoor spaces and access to technology are especially important for homeless populations. Richard LeMieux was a publishing mogul before his company went under, his family turned him away, and he ended up on the streets in Washington. His book, Breakfast at Sally’s,chronicles his experiences with homelessness.

“The library was another sanctuary for the homeless. There was always plenty for everyone, rich and poor. Those without a roof over their heads could escape with Wolfe, Kafka, or Robert Louis Stevenson and have shelter from the heat and the cold, the rain and the pain,” LeMieux writes in his 2015 memoir.

Public libraries are meant to be community spaces, no matter the background of the community members. “The library is for everyone. The library belongs to everyone. We are all equal here,” said Biljana Milenkovic, a library associate at the Tenley-Friendship branch.

It is a point of pride for Milenkovic that the library can serve as a safe space for people without permanent homes. Milenkovic immigrated to the United States in 2004, and the library was her safe place to be when she first arrived. She used the library to print maps of her new city and search for jobs. It became home for her.

When I asked Milenkovic about the best part of her job, she surprised me. She began to sing.

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,” she sang softly into the echoey conference room. She smiled. Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear.

“How do you measure?” she asked me, speaking the next line of the Rent song. “How do you measure when every single moment is something special?”

The D.C. Public Library branches are building and strengthening communities every single day, Milenkovic said. There is research that says that Milenkovic is probably right. A Pew study found that 66 percent of Americans say closing their public library would have a major impact on their community.7

On average, the D.C. Public Library branches host about 60 events and activities throughout the city each day. Events are planned for varying age groups, interests, and talents. Some are meant to fulfil unmet needs in the community. There are workforce training sessions, resume workshops, and tax preparation sessions.

Milenkovic smiled as she remembered a patron who used the library trainings to find a job and then brought the library staff a basket of baked goods to say thank you.

Other events are meant to give community members a chance to get to know each other. There are book clubs, knitting groups, and opportunities for people learning English for the first time to come and practice with one another. Library staffers organize karaoke nights and Wii tournaments for teenagers. They facilitate play groups for parents with young children.

“[Libraries] are evolving more into community spaces… They can’t just be about books anymore. We need to focus on the community and bringing people together,” said Katrina Hollod, a library associate at the Tenley-Friendship branch.

The library also does outreach for people who are unable to visit a physical branch of the library. The Tenley-Friendship staff runs a book club with senior citizens at a nearby retirement home. It gives the residents a chance to engage with literature and connect it to their individual histories, Hollod explained.

When I tried to tell Milenkovic how impressed I was with the library’s programming, she waved me off.

“What’s the alternative?” she asked. I thought about that and did the math. When the program is, let’s say, a showing of Spiderman at the library, what is the alternative? For a family of four to see a movie at the local AMC, tickets would cost $40 for two adults and two children. That price doesn’t include a meal or even snacks. For plenty of families, that price is far too high.

The availability of a free movie night at the local library gives those families a chance to treat their children to a night out without making some sort of financial sacrifice to offset the cost. It makes family movie nights accessible for everyone, breaking down the barriers of socio-economic status.

Public libraries are reaching into communities and making themselves known as centers for engagement. The data tell us that people are using libraries more than ever. We know from listening to individual people telling their stories that library programming has a positive impact. But Milenkovic’s musical question makes a larger point – how do you measure the value of public libraries?

“By interactions? By exchanges?” she asks. “There’s the smile of a child entering the children’s room. The teenagers giggling while they’re playing games. The older adult, the regular patron who is experiencing homelessness but who comes and shakes your hand like he really means it,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t know how you measure.”

What we know for sure is that across D.C. and across the United States, people are using public libraries and are better for it. These buildings are more than four walls and a roof. They are a meeting ground. They are common ground. They are places where everyone is equal, and everyone belongs. They are home to the homeless, to children of affluent Washington bureaucrats, to first-generation immigrants alike. Public libraries are serving everybody. At a time when America is more polarized that we’ve seen in generations, it’s nice to know that there are still places where people are coming together.

Milenkovic may have made the point best when she said, “People see this space as their space. And it is.”

Endnotes

1 – “Are Libraries Dying? Debunking This Common Misconception.” Rutgers University, 20 Nov. 2018, online.rutgers.edu/blog/libraries-dying-debunking-common-misconception/.

2 – Barclay, Donald A. “Space and the Social Worth of Public Libraries.” Public Library Quarterly 36.4 (2017): 267-273. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 18 March 2019.

3 – Id.

4 – Id.

5 – Id.

6 – “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center, 5 Feb 2018, https://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/.

7 – Supra note 1.

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