In 2005, the Online Computer Library Center’s (OCLC) study Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources identified two critical facts about library service.1 First, the study revealed that most people come to public libraries for print materials. Second, it found that people associate libraries, first and foremost, with books. There is no runner-up. We’re known primarily as book places and, thus, books are our brand.
For those of us who have worked in public libraries for multiple decades, the OCLC study results were a vindication, an affirmation of our place in the learning community. The study also seemed to indicate that the pendulum was swinging back to our core values of books and reading. Many of us entered the public library profession because we wanted books to be our life’s work. After all, our voracious appetites for reading were what drew us to libraries in the first place. But somehow during the Internet decades our love of reading and books got us labeled as Luddites. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Bookish” librarians were quick to jump on discussion lists and databases, and later blogs, wikis, YouTube, Facebook, and other Web 2.0 technologies to share great reads, support readers’ advisory, and answer the most obscure book-related reference questions.
Our obsession with books and reading hasn’t been hindered by technology at all; it has been enhanced by it. Technology has allowed us to share the joy of good books with the reading public in exciting new ways. It has also raised the profile of librarians and given bookishness new cachet. Who, after all, is the public librarian’s great contemporary goddess? Nancy Pearl, of course. She is truly the rock star of reading. With her readers’ advisory books and monthly online newsletter “Pearl’s Picks,” she has elevated the librarian’s place in the reading world and showed us what a graceful art readers’ advisory can be.
Though technology has made the work of promoting books and reaching the reading public easier, it’s still not easy. Reading competes with so many other attractive options for people’s free time—television, DVDs, gaming, and Web browsing to name a few. For years reading continued to lose ground to these other activities, but in January 2009, we received some good news from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA’s report, Reading on the Rise,2 revealed that for the first time since 1982 (when the NEA began surveying the literary reading habits of Americans), literary reading among adults had increased, particularly among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. This upward trend is especially important because frequent readers are far more likely to find success in the academic and professional worlds, to volunteer their time civically, to attend cultural events (for example, concerts, museums, theater), to exercise and eat healthier than nonreaders and infrequent readers. Though the NEA warns that its report data indicates statistical correlations, not necessarily cause and effect, the correlations are strong and suggest more than mere coincidence. Habitual reading, for instance, correlates strongly with academic achievement. Poor reading skills correlate with unemployment, low wages, and so on. The evidence can’t be ignored: reading is clearly vital to the development of healthy individuals and communities.
Public libraries and librarians are making a great contribution to the future of the reading public. The Public Library Association (PLA) has long been committed to fostering a love of reading. Every Child Ready to Read @ your library is a joint project of PLA and the Association for Library Service to Children. Since the project was launched in 2000, a joint task force with members from both organizations has supported continuous improvement and the infusion of new research in early learning to keep Every Child Ready to Read @ your library fresh and relevant. The early skills necessary for reading success have been a standard component of public library programming. Summer reading programs, book discussion groups for all ages and author visits are, for example, all staple library programs. Technology has helped us reach readers more frequently and in greater numbers. We’re all e-mailing, chatting, and tweeting with our readers. We’re creating podcasts and video on demand to expand our audience. We’re offering online book clubs for our customers’ convenience. In fact, the very basic ability to put a book on hold and receive notification on availability has expanded our customer base of readers. In addition, Kindle and other e-book readers have captured new audiences and drawn attention to libraries’ downloadable collections.
Readers continue to be our best advocates and most vocal supporters of public funding for libraries. It’s a mutually beneficial cycle. Strong public libraries support and foster the reading public, and the reading public supports its libraries. Public libraries across the nation have reinforced this core purpose in the struggle to compete for funding in urban, rural, and suburban communities alike.
I am among a generation of public librarians who entered the profession as a reader. I continue to make reading an important part of my life, though often it’s difficult to make the time. On October 28, 2008, Nina Sankovitch read a novel and then made a commitment to read one book every day for a year. She reviewed them on her blog, www.readallday.org. Her motive was to prove that there is enough time in the day to read—if you make the time. While Sankovitch’s plan for a book a day may be a play on “so many books, so little time,” I’m putting her quest on my “bucket list” and post-retirement plans. In the meantime, I am thankful to be in a profession that surrounds me with books, readers, and the literary life.
- Online Computer Library Center, Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership (Nov. 2005), (accessed Oct. 19, 2009).
- 2. National Endowment for the Arts, Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy (Jan. 2009) (accessed Oct. 19, 2009).