Transcript: The Public Library in a Disruptive Age
Recorded at Miami Book Fair 2017
For podcast release Monday, November 20, 2017
KENNEALLY: Thank you, indeed, and welcome to all of you here at the Miami Book Fair. It’s a pleasure to be with you again. Copyright Clearance Center and Beyond the Book are here on a regular basis, and we will be uploading the audio of this discussion today for our podcast tomorrow morning. So if you enjoy what you hear and you want to share it with friends, please let them know.
Libraries are important cornerstones of a healthy community. Libraries give the opportunity to find jobs, explore medical research, experience new ideas, get lost in wonderful stories, while at the same time providing a sense of place for gathering. Those aren’t my words. They are lifted entirely from a State Library of Iowa website under the section Telling the Library’s Story. There, you will find a complete sample speech addressing why are libraries important. Local officials and library patrons are presumably the intended speech-givers. As libraries will do, the State Library of Iowa is providing the right information at the right time. There is a blank for you to insert the name of your favorite library, and I will try to give the speech with the sincerity of an actor.
The Blank Library reflects the diversity and character and the needs and expectations of our community. Those needs and expectations are often extensive and the services invaluable. The Blank Library is often the only readily available source of comprehensive information needed by people for personal, family, and job-related purposes. Our community’s economic benefits when businesspeople use library resources to make wise business decisions, employees use it to improve job skills, or the disadvantaged use it to help break the cycle of poverty. During economic hardship, our citizens turn to and depend on the library. Our summer vacations, evenings, and weekends – I’m sorry, over summer vacations, evenings, and weekends, the Blank Library is the only library available to schoolchildren. For preschoolers, it is simply the only library available. College students use the library when they’re home for the weekend, and the reference resources in public libraries are usually unavailable anywhere else in the community. Our library is a unique and valuable resource. It is a lifeline to the world and all of the information in it.
That’s the speech. How is it possible, then, that anywhere so popular, so beloved, so important, so essential, could also be considered so endangered as our public libraries? The disruptive, threatening forces at work are political, fiscal, and technological. Technology promises admittance to a virtual library that is polyglot and global in breadth and depth. Yet in Washington, the Trump Administration earlier this year proposed dramatic funding cuts that call into question the federal government’s role in promoting information access for all citizens.
To understand the challenge to libraries better and to explore what can be done to ensure their survival, we will hear this morning from four panelists who are well qualified indeed to make the case why libraries still matter in a digital world. So I want to welcome our panel. Moving from the very far end, Ray Baker. Ray, welcome.
BAKER: Thank you.
KENNEALLY: Ray was appointed director of the Miami-Dade public library system in June 2017, having served as interim director since February 2017 and as an assistant director prior to that. As director of the Miami-Dade public library system, he is responsible for the planning and implementation of library services for a 50-branch public library system with a service area of nearly two and a half million residents. He is currently vice chair of the Florida Library Association legislative committee, a member of the board of directors of the Southeast Florida Library Information Network, and has been appointed by the Florida Secretary of State to the Library Services and Technology Act advisory panel.
To Ray’s left is John Chrastka. John, welcome. John Chrastka is founder of EveryLibrary, the first and only national organization dedicated to building voter support for libraries. He is a longtime library trustee, supporter, and advocate. Among many other distinctions in the American public library world, John Chrastka was named a 2014 Mover and Shaker by Library Journal. He was previously director for membership development at the American Library Association.
And to John’s left is Meredith Schwartz. Meredith, welcome.
SCHWARTZ: Thank you.
KENNEALLY: Meredith is executive editor of Library Journal, the leading national magazine for library leaders and staff. She has discussed free speech and controversy in libraries on public radio, presented panels on the role of libraries in the community at professional conferences and public facing events, and she serves as a judge of awards for cutting-edge libraries across America.
And finally, to my right is my colleague and friend Andrew Albanese. Andrew, welcome.
ALBANESE: Good morning. Thank you.
KENNEALLY: Andrew is a senior writer in Publishers Weekly, the nation’s leading publication covering the book trade. He’s covered the publishing and information technology field since 1999, including as a reporter and editor at Library Journal. And Andrew appears with me every Friday on CCC’s weekly podcast Beyond the Book.
Ray Baker, that’s a long tee-up, perhaps, to a very important discussion, but I felt it was important to set the stage, and I enjoyed finding that sample speech. It’s not every day a moderator can just lift something right off the web with no guilty conscience at all – particularly for someone from Copyright Clearance Center. But, Ray Baker, I wonder if you could tell us from your perspective at Miami-Dade, how disruptive are the times we are living in, and how is your library meeting the challenge?
BAKER: Well, first of all, I definitely feel like the book is still king in our library. We still check out about 300,000 items a month just in print format and videos and audiobooks. But we are starting to see the digital books and ebooks and platforms that we purchase to provide those to our patrons come more in the picture and to start to take up more of our collection budget. The collection budget doesn’t necessarily increase in size, but the decisions that we have to make in how we spread that money out – it’s more challenging as we go along.
KENNEALLY: Right. And the community you’re serving is a multilingual community, and so you’re looking for materials not only in English and Spanish, obviously, but in other languages, as well. Tell us about that.
BAKER: Sure. Well, clearly we have – about 70% of Miami is people of Hispanic or Latino background, and then you also have a growing Russian population. You have a growing Haitian Creole population. We have to find ways to also take that same pie of the materials budget and spread that around and make books and other materials – online and otherwise – available in those languages.
KENNEALLY: What I want to try to explore throughout this discussion is just the premise of why we’re here, whether or not we are indeed in a disruptive age, or whether somehow the story’s been gotten wrong and libraries are doing quite well. Now, at the Miami-Dade Public Library, you experienced a drop off in funding as a result of the recession, and you were telling me that it’s only just beginning to cover and that you have had to, as a matter of course in controlling your spending, hold off maintenance, hold of requiring new materials, doing all those kinds of things. So you must be pleased to see funding at least beginning to return to the levels before the recession.
BAKER: Absolutely. The last three years, our mayor and our board have been very supportive of adding back hours of service, adding back days of service, hiring more staff, adding more money back to the collection budget. In fact, we’re even, I would say, starting to expand. We added a new library to our system last year for the first time in many years, and we’re in the process of renovating and building a couple of replacement branches right now. So we’re definitely seeing strong support locally in terms of library funding and starting to really see the difference in people coming back to the library after the drop off a few years ago.
KENNEALLY: John Chrastka, that’s what you’re all about, is funding for public libraries. And you’ve just been through an election cycle – admittedly an off-year cycle, so as a result, you don’t get the kind of turnout that you would in a presidential election or even a midterm election. But nevertheless, it gives us a sense of how the communities are responding. Tell us the scorecard for 2017.
CHRASTKA: Sure. The scorecard for 2017 – so every library has an organization – we’re actually a super-PAC for libraries. Those of you who listen to NPR, you watch Fox News, you hear about super-PACs, how they can raise and expend unlimited funds to advance their nefarious special interests. Here are our nefarious special interests.
The scorecard, if you will, in 2017 is very interesting. Being an off-cycle, of course, decisions are made by the people who show up, regardless of what the turnout’s going to be. But the people that showed up around the country in small towns and in big cities, in red states and in blue states, in the main were very supportive this year of local funding for local libraries.
The largest system that we worked with was the Mid-Continent Public Library outside of Kansas City on the Missouri side – three counties. Now, they have an interesting thing that I want to come back to a little bit more about, which is one of their three counties is a very Tea Party-oriented county commission. In fact, these folks refused to put it on the ballot. They almost had to go to court in order to –
KENNEALLY: Just so I’m clear, this had been an initiative that they simply weren’t going to put the text on the printed ballot.
CHRASTKA: That’s correct. Yeah, their plenary authority is to put the measure on the ballot. It’s not the responsibility of the county commission. It’s the responsibility of the library board to make the decision to go to the voters, and they did. And then they were going to recuse because of – any tax is a bad tax. That is a disruptive environment here in the political sphere for libraries and many places. Yet that county voted 72% yes once they had the opportunity.
It’s based this year, as it was last year, as it will be next year, as well, in the values that the library delivers on, if you will. I don’t mean like ROI. I don’t mean a return on investment of value to you as a user or you to a user. I mean the value system that people have. Do we believe that other people should have access to what we already got?
Because the enfranchised voter is not necessarily the user of the library. The enfranchised voter – the person with that sense of agency, that person who comes out and votes all the time – may or may not have been there since they were children themselves. Yet how do they start to understand what Ray is doing with new technology and new formats and places that are moving the needle on makerspace – they haven’t been there since they were kids themselves. So how do you have that discussion in a way that says not suddenly you should come in – well, eventually, I hope they do – but where’s your value system? What do you believe about your town, your state, America?
KENNEALLY: Right. John, what’s interesting about that is that the library – we’ll talk with Meredith about whether it’s a neutral space or what kind of a space it is, but when you raise the political aspect of it, if we associate terms with libraries, they seem to cross-pollinate across a spectrum of political beliefs that are progressive and libertarian and conservative. Libraries we talk about as being pro-democratic, which is something that all three of those terms might ascribe to. They’re community-oriented, which is something that a conservative voting base might find attractive. Is that the magic of weighing in a space that you just described, because it really is something that – after all, it doesn’t have partisanship, even when some people try to insert it?
CHRASTKA: It does not have partisanship. We’ve had more success is some traditional red state environments like Southern Indiana than we’ve had in some blue places like the Bay Area, California. It’s curious to me. It really drives not into a big R, big D, Republican, Democrat. It drives into what do you believe about taxes? Do you believe in funding the common good with a progressive tax policy? On the progressive side, it’s certainly true. And do you believe in curating and continuing the community’s heart in that conservative kind of way?
The libertarian question is always the curious one, though. The libertarian question – oftentimes, the library, when it’s looked at a social good, is looked at as a handout, when I know and all the other folks here in the room who does library work knows it’s a hand up. That’s a classic approach to a libertarian conversation. How do we give, with a limited amount of tax money, an absolutely massive amount of leverage? And I think the library is shovel-ready for that conversation.
KENNEALLY: Right. John, just so we have some perspective, within budgets, a typical state – well, I guess they’re all local budgets, really – the police and the fire would probably be the first line. Education, schools after that. Libraries roughly are in what percentage of a local budget?
CHRASTKA: Maybe a half a percent, a percent, three percent? Around the country, there’s 9,875 library main buildings – districts – either as part of a city, a county, a town, a township, a joint powers authority. Yeah, it’s nothing. It’s nothing compared to. Yet it’s perhaps one of the few places that’s going to be on the ballot. It’s going to be one of the few places that everybody uses. So it’s one of the few places that folks feel like they have a chance to have a voice. We don’t have a lot of participation in our democracy, and so when there is an opportunity to maybe push back on something else that’s going on in town, something else that’s happening in that county, there is a bit of collateral damage sometimes, even though it’s only – well, it’s certainly more than the widow’s mite but it is a small percentage overall of your tax bill.
KENNEALLY: Meredith Schwartz at Library Journal, I want to talk about the place of libraries in communities, and you know a great deal about that. Your publication covers that, and it’s perhaps a good place to start by reminding people of the way that libraries, in a sense, have come to the rescue in some very troubling circumstances. In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, in 2014, there was a library at the heart of the crisis there, and the librarian Scott Bonner responded, and did so sort of step by step. It wasn’t an all-out project. It was just one day he did something, and the next day he did something else. But tell us that, because it’s a really heroic story, and it gives people an idea that libraries really aren’t the nostalgic vision of shelves and books.
SCHWARTZ: Absolutely. In the classic way of answering the question you didn’t ask but I wanted you to ask, before I do that, I wanted to say Google Books and all those books they scanned – guess where they got them. They were scanned from libraries. The HathiTrust, which is a series of libraries, gave those books to Google to scan them. So even in the narrative that libraries are being released, that’s actually a library service the libraries are providing to Google users. (laughter)
KENNEALLY: And libraries, just to say – the libraries were very proactive in joining that effort.
SCHWARTZ: So now to your actual question. The story of Scotty Bonner in Ferguson is very interesting, because that’s not a gigantic library. I give all respect to Miami and to New York Public, which is my home library, and all of these big systems, but the Ferguson Library only had one full-time employee, and that was Scott. When all the unrest happened in Ferguson, among other things, the public schools closed, so there were an awful lot of people who suddenly had their kids and didn’t know what to do with them, and they didn’t know if they had any safe places to go, both the parents and the kids and just regular people without kids.
The first thing that Scott did that caused all the rest of it was just decide to stay open at a time when businesses and everything were closing. He put a big sign up out front saying all are welcome here, come in for peace and community. And people came. They came from all over. So then he said, well, we’ve got to do something for all these people. So he started recruiting volunteers and especially teachers who were off of work because the schools were closed to put on children’s programming to give those children something to do and also a way to process their feelings about what was happening in their town. So they had creative art projects where the kids could draw how they were feeling, and they had story times. It wasn’t a replacement school, but he had structured, proactive, positive activities for these children who were both at loose ends and also worried.
Then this story started circulating on social media, and it was like the one positive story coming out of the giant mess in Ferguson. So people got really into it from all over the country, nowhere near Ferguson. So they started sending him money. And Scotty, for one little guy doing 18 million hours a day, was very savvy about social media. He didn’t try to make something fancy, but he made a reading list of books he wanted for the kids in the town that he couldn’t afford. It was an Amazon wish list. You can buy us a book.
Then somebody said, well, that’s great, but we’d like to send you some money, too, and he said OK. So he set up a little crowdfunding thing. They made so much money – and they weren’t asking. This was all in response to people asking them. They made so much money they could hire a second full-time employee. They raised more money from this than more than equaled the entire library budget. Now, in this town, the entire library budget was about a quarter of a million dollars. It was heat, light, Scotty’s salary, and two part-time people after school. But still, they got a permanent employee because of this, and it really raised their profile with their own funders – with their town government, with the state library, with the people around now.
Unfortunately, there’s been unrest around the country. There was a problem in Baltimore. You may have heard of it a little while ago. Then the director of the Baltimore County Public Library – now you might have heard of her as the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden – called Scotty Bonner, this little tiny library, and said tell me about how you did it. And they kept the Baltimore Library open and the same thing happened. People actually in the community, where there were riots in Baltimore – members of the local community stood outside the library and protected it to make sure that nothing happened to that building. That just tells you that library’s important to somebody, and not out of nostalgia.
KENNEALLY: It’s my understanding that in the case in Baltimore, the Pratt Library was really across the street from where the incident had happened.
SCHWARTZ: Yes, it was right there.
KENNEALLY: And I think pointing that out is to say just how immediate the challenge is, but to also recognize that libraries are often in the heart of a community. They’re not stuck off in a corner somewhere. They’re right in the center of things – literally and by the news, as well.
What does it mean that Carla Hayden is now the Librarian of Congress? Are we going to see her experience, do you think – and has it already perhaps shaped how she is facing the challenge of running the Library of Congress, which is the largest library in the world?
SCHWARTZ: I have a cheat sheet on this, because she just spoke at one of our events about exactly this. She says she still considers herself a public librarian, just with a bigger public. Part of what she’s trying to do is make the Library of Congress resources more available to the whole public, because it’s always been a fantastic resource for Congress, of course. But they’re trying to do more outreach, so they do things like – they have the first Superman comic ever. So now when Comic Con came to DC, they had a pop-up exhibit and brought all these people in costume into the Library of Congress. That wasn’t something you would see before. It’s a cultural shift more than anything else.
The other thing she’s working on is digitization, so that you can access these things from anywhere. Because while it’s great to be accessible to the public in DC, here in Miami, it’s a little hard to get to DC. But the more they digitize these items and put them up on the internet, the more anybody can access them, and librarians all over the country can direct their patrons to those digitized resources. One thing we’re finding in this era of digital transformation is it’s great to have stuff, but people still need to know where to find it.
KENNEALLY: Right, and technology is part of the disruption that we’re examining and challenging here. What I have learned from speaking with all of the panel in advance of our discussion today is that technology is very much a part of the library, as well. It’s at the heart of the library. If the library’s at the heart of the community, technology is at the heart of the library. This addresses a number of issues. It brings people in who may not have the resources to have access themselves. They get access at the library. But it’s also giving people, as John was saying, a hand up around technology, with programs that are giving teens an opportunity to learn how to use a 3D printer or create a video for YouTube.
Meredith, what about that? Again, if we’re going to draw a picture of a library, we see bookshelves. We see a librarian at a checkout counter and a sign in the back that says shh. But that’s just not the case any longer, especially in a very busy place, because that’s how it sounds like when you describe basically geek bars in libraries.
SCHWARTZ: Most libraries of size will still have a little quiet reading room somewhere for people who really need to concentrate. We’re not saying that quiet is bad. But basically now it’s reversed. It used to be the default of a library was quiet, and there’d be maybe a little noisy zone in the corner if you wanted to have a meeting. Now it’s more – I wouldn’t say loud, only when the teenagers come after school – but it’s a creative buzz of people working. There’s a lot more collaborative work going on in libraries. There’s a lot more active work going on in libraries, and that makes noise.
My favorite picture to use for an example for that is YOUmedia is a makerspace that started in Chicago Public Library and has now gone national. There are other makerspaces – there’s a great one in Miami with sewing machines. I’m jealous. But this is one in Chicago where Chance the Rapper got his start before he was famous. And there’s a great picture of Chance rapping in front of a green screen, but also a wall of those books. Books have not left. They’re all integrated with this experience. That’s where he learned how to make videos and audio recordings. And now he’s famous and he’s advocating for the library both with the government in Chicago, but also with kids who are interested in DJing, interested in rapping, may not have thought of the library as someplace for them. So I don’t know if that answered your question, but I think it’s cool.
KENNEALLY: It certainly does. Yeah, I do, too. Andrew Albanese, we chat every week for Beyond the Book, and you’ve made a strong case for me that libraries are an important part of the publishing world. Obviously, they are. They’re a big customer of book publishers. They’re a way of promoting reading and literacy. And you cover it, as well, from the national level. We’ve been hearing about the fight for libraries at a local level from John and from Ray, even from Meredith. But tell us briefly about the picture from Washington when it comes to funding for libraries.
ALBANESE: Sure. So I do spend quite a bit of time talking with people in Washington, DC, about library issues. The big picture is that earlier in the year, the Trump administration, as Meredith knows, proposed cutting out virtually all federal library funding, including shutting down the Institute of Museum and Library Services, through which all funding flows.
KENNEALLY: Let’s just give people, for the record, that that institute was begun when and by whom?
ALBANESE: I believe it was begun by Barbara Bush.
SCHWARTZ: Barbara Bush.
KENNEALLY: The Bush administration. That’s right. I point that out just because we need to be reminded, I think, of this nonpartisan aspect of libraries, that the Bush administration – and Laura Bush, particularly – were great supporters of libraries.
ALBANESE: Yeah, that’s right. I’m sorry. Laura Bush is a librarian. I think it was Laura Bush, not Barbara Bush. So the good news about that is that Congress stood up to the Trump administration, and the latest funding bill that went through Congress – library services, library funding was restored. Where we stand now with that is it hasn’t gotten through the Senate yet, and obviously there’s a big tax bill that’s on the floor now. What I’m told from Washington is that the tax bill – if there is a tax bill that goes through, ultimately that means less money for library services. They’re going to have to find money to plug the deficit gap a little bit, and library funding – that’s just going to be less money for them. So despite winning back support in Congress and pushing back on the Trump agenda, things are still very much threatened at the national level for libraries.
KENNEALLY: Library patrons are very responsive to all of these challenges, Andrew, and social media enables that today. There are few discussions about libraries that can go on in back rooms as they might have done in the past, and we’re seeing an example of that just out this week, where the New York Public Library is – pardon the stretch of a pun – but is taking a second bite at the apple when it comes to renovating the iconic library on Fifth Avenue. But there’s a lesson in there for the way the communities respond when they see a beloved institution undergoing change. Tell us that.
ALBANESE: Yeah, absolutely. It was kind of exciting news, right?
ALBANESE: This week, we learned that a $317 million project, mostly from private funds, is going to renovate the historic main library in New York. You may know it – it’s got the two lions out front, Patience and Fortitude. But the backstory on that is that they tried this in 2012 and it failed miserably, because the plan didn’t bring in local constituents. People didn’t have a chance to comment on some of the things they were proposing, and a few of those things were controversial. For example, they wanted to gut the stacks, 175,000 square feet that houses the research collection, and move that collection to New Jersey, and turn that space into computer rooms and public spaces, and there was an uprising against that. The non-transparency of it looked a little fishy. NYPL sold off a little real estate or proposed selling off a little real estate, and there’s some developers on the board of NYPL. So the public rose up and shot that one down.
This new project – it’s all private money – seems to have taken in a number of those concerns, But tomorrow night, I’ll be at a public meeting for this, and I expect there’s going to be some more pushback. One of the main reasons is because the branches – and Meredith knows this as well as a New Yorker – the branch system in New York City is still struggling a little bit. There’s a lot of facilities that need a lot of attention in local communities in New York, and yet we’re spending $317 million on one building in Midtown Manhattan. So I think Monday night, you’re going to see another wave of people stand up and say what about my community library?
KENNEALLY: Ray Baker, that may sound familiar to you. People do think of the library not as the central library, the system itself, but as the library on the street or around the corner. Would you agree?
BAKER: Yeah. Clearly, with 50 locations, every one of our libraries is in a different neighborhood and has a much different type of reader. We have some of our inner-city libraries where there’s a larger need for computers and Wi-Fi, and in some of the more wealthy communities, we get higher checkout rates of actual physical books. So yeah, it’s broadly diverse, and they all want different things for their libraries in each of our different locations. So we have to be sensitive to that as we go make plans for changes at any of these branches.
KENNEALLY: And the consistent thing across all libraries, whatever kind of community they’re in, is it’s a provider of information, of entertainment, as well. But the information piece is critical. We’ve heard about Pew studies, and people rely, as Pew has found, on the information they get at the library. They seem to trust it. That raises an important point in an age of fake news and post-fact world and the rest of it. Where do libraries come in, Ray Baker, in helping their patrons sort all of that out? If you’re providing information –
BAKER: Fake – they shut us down. (laughter)
KENNEALLY: (laughter) Yeah, well, let there be light. We’re OK. So thank you. What I was asking about was if the library’s role in the past has been to provide information – access to information – somebody wanted to know about the history of a certain community or something like that, they came to the library for it. How do they look at the library as a source for helping them figure out information from misinformation?
BAKER: Well, this is clearly a very timely question and something that we’ve been working on a lot, especially over the last year. No coincidence in timing there, by the way. We actually teamed up with a group called the News Literacy Project, who is funded by the Knight Foundation, and we’ve been providing fake news training, for lack of a better word, in our branches. The first couple rounds, we were working mostly with teens and trying to teach them how to not only distinguish real news from fake news, but how to tie the library into that as an authoritative source of information and be able to learn how to figure things out on your own. So we really enjoyed that, and we’ll probably expand it to adults pretty soon, I think.
KENNEALLY: I think some of the adults may need it maybe more than the teens do. John Chrastka, is that something that came up in the campaigns for funding this year, whether the library as a resource of information has a responsibility in helping people know facts from pseudo-facts?
CHRASTKA: It’s an interesting question, because the level that I’m working at with the library leadership teams and with the local vote yes communities, we’re faced every day with the disinformation campaign that is happening. Sometimes it’s a lack of information campaign. And my horizon on this, Chris, is not quite as far afield as Ray’s is, perhaps. We’re always working on having a good conversation, a robust conversation, an honest conversation, and a transparent conversation in the community about where the money’s going and who’s spending the money. There’s often a bias that is heard by folks about where the money’s going, because if we’re not careful, the librarians could just be another kind of bureaucrat, could just be another public employee. And what they do is so different. But from a fake news perspective, I’ve got to defer.
KENNEALLY: OK. Meredith, when you survey the libraries and speak to librarians on the ground, how are they tackling that new responsibility? In the past, they sort of assume that they were going to just give people the information and it was authoritative because it was from the library. But here now, they have to probably tell people you can trust this. I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal this week talking about the continuing place of reference librarians around the world.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, I saw that. That was very good.
KENNEALLY: It was a wonderful article. And the kinds of questions that reference librarians get – and I believe it was a librarian in Florida who got a question – oh, no, it wasn’t in Florida. Excuse me. It was somewhere else in the country. That was the point – who called up the reference librarian and said, are all these stories about hurricanes true? The librarian said, well, it’s been reported on a number of authoritative news sites, so I think you can take it as true. They should have just called Ray Baker, maybe, and he could have told them for sure. Maybe called any of you. You could have told them, too. But for librarians, how do they look at the situation and this new responsibility to sort through the information, the misinformation, the downright lies?
SCHWARTZ: The roots of this have been coming for a while, but it’s definitely exploded into consciousness in this past year or so. Librarians used to call this – and sometimes do still call it – information literacy or media literacy. Libraries like to put the word literacy on things. It makes it clear that it’s part of their job. And it was about how to sort through information, because we’ve been coming for a while, especially with the technological shift, from a world in which information was scarce and the primary job of the library was to provide it, to a world where information is omnipresent and the primary job of the library is to help you sort through it and find the actual needle in your haystack. There’s a coffee mug that goes around in library circles that says Google will give you a thousand answers, a librarian will help you find the right one.
The challenge now is not everybody can call a librarian every time, so now librarians are much more focused on teaching you how to find the right one yourself. It’s not that they didn’t do that before, but there’s a new urgency to it, and about applying it to your everyday life. People often approach information literacy as if it were about writing your school papers. How do you know what’s a good source? But now it’s a thing like how do you know if the hurricanes are real? There’s such a polarized debate not just about values and what we should do about things, but whether the facts actually happened, and what is a trustworthy source about those facts?
So librarians are doing a lot of courses, just like Ray was describing, and the great advantage of starting with teens or school libraries is that they have a little bit of a captive audience, whereas the issue for adults is partly that, as someone was talking about – I think it was you, Christopher – not all adults use the library in person a lot. You’re reaching a large subset of the population. Libraries have a very wide user base. But you’re not reaching the whole population, And within that, you need to convince people that they have a problem, that they actually need help with this.
One of the Pew studies divided users into groups. We actually presented on this at an event at the Miami Library last year. There’s people who feel confident in their ability to sort things. Those people don’t need any help, or they think they don’t, and usually they’re right. Then there’s people who want help and they know where to get it, and those people are going to sign up for your adult programs as soon as you start them. But then there’s a group of people who are confused and overwhelmed and they don’t know where to look. And the real challenge for librarians is how to reach that – public librarians, especially – is how to reach that population of people who know that fake news is a problem, don’t really know how to evaluate it, don’t even really know who to ask about how to evaluate it. They kind of find it overwhelming.
The usual methodology that people use of if I hear it from my friends, it’s probably true – that doesn’t work for this kind of thing. It works really well for personal experience. If I tell you the hotel I’m staying at had a great breakfast, you can believe me, because I had the breakfast. But when I forward you something from an email, it looks like I’m the source, but I’m not really the source. Whoever forwarded and forwarded and forwarded the source is lost in the mist of time. That’s part of the new challenge.
People are creating, in addition to courses – which is probably the number one way that libraries are dealing with it – but we’re also seeing libraries doing a ballot question where you can flag any claim made to a librarian for fact-checking within 24 hours. That was in Seattle. I thought that one was fun. It was actually a college like Miami-Dade where they were doing that. Or a set of pre-curated factual resources, nonpartisan, that are posted on an election website, so that if you’re trying to get information about those questions, there are library seal of approval resources right there.
KENNEALLY: But I wonder if the facts –
SCHWARTZ: Oh, bye.
KENNEALLY: Oh, yeah. (laughter)
SCHWARTZ: Was it something I said? (laughter)
KENNEALLY: Thanks for joining us. What I was going to ask – and we’ll close out our discussion with the panel and give an opportunity for the audience to ask some questions – but is all of this really – I think we’ve made the case that the libraries are not irrelevant. They are very relevant in so many more ways than just as a place to find reading material. But are libraries potentially a target today? If it is not about funding, it could just simply be part of this war on facts. I don’t know how you feel about that, Meredith. But is all of this bringing a light on libraries that is a welcome light or an unwelcome light?
SCHWARTZ: I think any light is welcome. That’s not to say it doesn’t have occasional blowback. There was a library out in Kansas City right near – actually, it was Mid-Continent, where they put of a display of books on Black Lives Matter, and some of the security guards were so upset about that display being there that they quit. So it’s certainly true that libraries are sometimes – if you get into what’s going on now, you’re going to offend somebody. But that’s what a library’s for. They put up that display not because they personally felt like it, but because people were asking them, hey, Black Lives Matter is in the news. What’s it about? Share information with me.
I think almost any librarian would agree – I hate to put words in their mouth – you’d rather piss people off than be seen as irrelevant. I think that if you’re digging into today’s issues and people are mad at you because you’re digging into today’s issues, it shows you’re doing your job. There’s an old saying – a good library should have something in it to offend everybody. Now, with programs or displays, it’s obviously a little different than just books.
But the narrative of do we need libraries when we have Google – that was very common a few years ago. I think we’ve made it pretty clear that the answer is yes, and you don’t have to believe us. The usage statistics are way up. You can check with the IMLS while we still have it. They survey usage every year. And if you look at the last 10 years, people are through the doors of libraries in amazing amounts.
KENNEALLY: Andrew Albanese, before we go to the questions from the audience, I want to ask you about the relationship about the publishing world, which is so critical to the success of the Miami Book Fair – authors, of course, are very important, as well. Tell us about publishers and their view of libraries today, how critical they may be, how that view has changed over the time that you’ve been reporting on it.
ALBANESE: Well, publishers are also in a disruptive age. Generally, they’re very supportive of libraries. They understand that money that goes to libraries for funding flows back to them. People buy their books and circulate their materials. But there’s a digital – there’s a technology element for libraries and publishers that’s quite uneasy for both.
Speaking of fake news, one element, like we talk about Google – Google’s a key part of the problem here, because your Google results and my Google results are different. As much as you’re reading online, Google’s reading you. Apple’s reading you. It pushes things up in your newsfeed that it knows that you like. So we get pushed further and further into our filter bubbles. That makes it harder and harder for publishers to choose and evaluate a subject to write books on if they think their audience is moving in another direction. It makes it more important for libraries to be neutral arbiters.
Carl Bernstein, the great journalist, the other day said that we’re in the midst of a cold civil war, and information is what that war is about – that people are so pushed into their own bubbles and believing what’s coming up in their newsfeed that it’s just hard. We’re not debating on the same set of facts anymore. So in addition to funding questions and all the other things, publishers are very much affected because they move in the direction – if they want to make money, they have to move in the direction of their audience, and sometimes their audiences are being pushed in ways that are not entirely correct or useful.
KENNEALLY: Great point there, Andrew Albanese. I want to thank our panel. We had Ray Baker, director of the Miami-Dade Public Library, John Chrastka, founder of EveryLibrary, Meredith Schwartz, the executive editor of Library Journal, and Andrew Albanese, senior writer at Publishers Weekly. My name is Chris Kenneally. Thank you very much for being here.