A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Telling the Story of Public Libraries

by Sari Feldman on May 2, 2013

This column represents my sign-off as president of the Public Library Association (PLA). It has been an honor to serve the PLA members and to represent our organization both nationally and internationally. As I close the book on my presidency, I would like to acknowledge the PLA staff members who make the difficult task of supporting the work of our committees, task force projects, and Communities of Practice (CoPs) look so easy. This year, through staff and member partnerships, PLA supported several critical projects, including Every Child Ready to Read and the conclusion of the Turning the Page training program. I am very proud of what we have accomplished together.

I would also like to welcome back Barbara Macikas as PLA’s executive director. Many of you had the great pleasure of working with Barb when she was the deputy executive director of PLA and executive director of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) and the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA). Barb is experienced, knowledgeable, and committed—and she has a great sense of humor. We are so fortunate to have her. She will be working closely with the PLA board and membership to deliver our next strategic plan.

The work of the PLA president is not only about the internal efforts of our organization. It’s also about telling the story of our nation’s public libraries. This year there were seemingly endless opportunities to communicate the role of public libraries in changing lives and building communities. During these difficult economic times, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and independent publications have been anxious for the national perspective on public libraries in order to balance their stories of budget cuts and rising usage. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to be a spokesperson for our organization and our profession, but I am also pleased to have had the chance to share local perspectives. Many journalists don’t understand the model of local control that keeps public libraries in touch with their communities. Some expect PLA to have a set of national rules or standards, which is why it is so important to communicate our true role—to share learning and best practices with our members, and to support the independent design of the local public library.

In November 2009, I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Shenzhen, China, as the guest of the Chinese government to represent PLA at the First International Summit on Public Libraries. The summit brought together about sixty of China’s public library thought leaders, as well as Roberta Stevens, president-elect, American Library Association; Beverly Lynch, professor, University of California, Los Angeles; Ellen Tice, president, International Federation of Library Associations; and Hwa-Wei Lee, dean emeritus, Ohio University Libraries. As a keynote speaker, I briefly traced the history of American public libraries to set the stage for my formal presentation, “Public Library Outreach in the Digital Age,” in which I shared some of the innovative ways American public libraries are using technology and creativity to better serve their customers.

Shenzhen’s more than thirteen million residents enjoy access to three main libraries, six district libraries, thirty-five street-level libraries, and more than five hundred community libraries. In addition to its abundance of libraries, the city also boasts forty self-service units that have been specially designed to meet an increased desire for convenience. This remarkable level of public library access is the result of a comprehensive service delivery model conceived by the Shenzhen Bureau of Culture. The bureau’s vision was to build a borderless library network to enrich the city’s cultural life and to provide residents with convenient access to information and lifelong learning.

During an extensive tour I saw firsthand some of the innovative ways that Shenzhen’s libraries are serving the city’s new industrial communities, supporting national literacy efforts, and applying technology to expand access for city residents. Though Shenzhen’s public libraries are bringing an incredibly rich array of services and collections to the city’s residents, they are still eager to learn and apply outreach techniques that bring new users to their libraries. The summit afforded me the opportunity to discuss PLA and its role in sharing best practices and creating learning opportunities. Chinese public library leaders and educators are anxious to develop networks of their own to share ideas and advance continuing education for librarians. It’s my hope that my visit to Shenzhen will be the beginning of international CoPs, a global public library learning space.

The remarkable success of the PLA 13th National Conference in Portland was the highlight of my presidential year. Portland is a great host city and it was such a pleasure to celebrate with Multnomah County (Ore.) Public Library. More than 7,700 attendees and exhibitors gathered to exchange ideas and share the latest information about the public library world. As for excitement, we had star power aplenty, from nationally known authors to a guest appearance by singer Natalie Merchant to the rock star of reading, Nancy Pearl. I so enjoyed getting the chance to talk with members, whether it was in the exhibits hall, luncheons, or just in the frantic rush from one program to the next. This marked the second time PLA offered a virtual component to its conference, and I had the pleasure of chatting with attendees during its online closing session. Regular conference attendees have full access to the virtual conference archives; I hope you’ll take a moment to check out any of the programs you might have missed at www.learningtimes.net/pla2010. Though it was a challenging year for travel, thousands made the trip to Portland to network, meet vendors, and take part in continuing education. We are incredibly thankful to our members, sponsors, and vendors for making PLA 2010 the best public library conference in the United States.

It has been an honor to serve you as PLA president. While my term comes to an end in June, I look forward to continuing to serve and support PLA. I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Audra Caplan as the new PLA president. I know Audra will do an excellent job leading our strategic planning process; continuing our advocacy efforts; strengthening member involvement in CoPs, committees, and task forces; launching the next generation of Every Child Ready to Read; and communicating the value of public libraries to our members and beyond.