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American libraries – latest developments

By Margaret Adolphus

Is it possible to measure the value of a library?

The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), one of the world's largest libraries, believes that you can. It commissioned a study of the library's economic impact on the town's citizens from the Fels Institute of Government at Penn State. The research was based on a survey of patrons and librarians at all branches, as well as data from the Census and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (see Fels Research & Consulting, 2010).

The study came up with some remarkable findings. The library, it seemed, played a crucial, and measurable, role in the following areas:

  • Literacy, with 10,788 people attributing their ability to read, and 14,024 their ability to teach others to read, to the library.
  • Workforce development, through career-development books, job-finding online activities, and job-readiness programmes; furthermore, 979 people found jobs directly as a result of the library's resources.
  • Business development, with books, online activities and programmes; furthermore, 8 per cent of those surveyed said they could not have started, grown or improved their business without the help of the library, with the result that an estimated 8,630 businesses benefited.
  • Increasing the value of homes: homes within a quarter of a mile of the library were worth on average $9,630 more.

A public good

Americans in general value their libraries, seeing them as a public good worth paying for.

And that has to be because libraries are doing something right. As in the case of the FLP, they are much more than a book and media storehouse – they are centres of lifelong learning and culture.

They can also provide free access to resources, including Internet-enabled computers – the latter being particularly relevant to the 60 per cent of rural Americans without broadband.

Above all, they try and provide what people really want, as opposed to what they think they want.

For example, when Seattle Public Library was being built in 2004, the original intention was to provide cutting-edge technology.

It was quickly realized, however, that what people really wanted was more computers, so 150 were installed which people could access any time of the day or night. The more technically savvy had their needs catered for in the form of podcasts, blogs and databases.


Advocacy is a key feature of American libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) is a strong lobbying body and evangelizes about libraries at every level, from the federal government to the ordinary citizen.

ALA president Molly Raphael believes, however, that the most important advocacy comes not from a body in Chicago, or, indeed, from the library itself. It's the user, and the community that the library serves, that counts.

"If I as a library leader talk about what libraries do, then there is always, because I work there, a perceived self-interest.

"But when you have people who advocate from the community, then you have a very different perception because these people don't have anything to gain or lose other than the library."

Thus the ALA will provide support and propose strategies, but the push must come from the users.

This means that the library has to look closely at its community, and see how it can best provide the service it needs.

"If they do that well, then people who live in the communities will care about the libraries and fight when they get proposed budget cuts."

It is easy to see how major public libraries such as Seattle or FLP listen to and serve their communities; but the same principle applies to academic and school libraries.

"If you have a faculty member saying, don't cut the library, it's too important for what I'm teaching, and for the students' learning, then that's far more powerful than if a librarian says the same thing."

When the University of California at Berkeley threatened to cut the weekend opening of the anthropology library, a 24 hour sit-in by students caused the authorities to think again.

So, for academic libraries it's the faculty and students who are the core community; for school libraries, parents can be added to the mix as they care very much about their children's education.


Libraries, at least public libraries, are helped by the flexibility of the funding system. How libraries are funded is based on state law, so will differ from state to state.

Many states allow libraries to form a library district where they actually go direct to the voters and ask them to tax themselves to pay for the library.

This happened in Hood River County, in the state of Oregon – when the county lost its funding, the voters agreed to create a library district to fund the library in the future. The library has just reopened after a year's closure while the new funding stream was being sorted out.

The physical library

The increased significance of the virtual library, how it can be accessed 24/7, how patrons can benefit from the library's resources without visiting the building, is well documented.

Yet some of the most significant developments in American libraries have involved new builds or refurbishments. In 2010 for example, there were 125 public library building projects with a total spend of $1.1 billion.

The emphasis on space, and the new builds, is because libraries of all types have changed their function – no longer book warehouses, they are learning environments and cultural centres, meeting very diverse needs.

Catering for different study needs

Writing in the American Library Magazine, Elise Valoe comments (Valoe, 2011) on the different types of study environment an academic library should provide, from a quiet place for reading/assignment writing or somewhere with Wi-Fi to check e-mails, to a place for peer group work.

Valoe advocates a number of new design principles, such as library spaces to foster social learning, good signage and clear pathways to customer support, and reference areas which allow for user and librarian to both use a keyboard.

Adjacencies must be looked at: for instance, avoiding putting "talking" areas next to booths for quiet study.

When the Sterling C. Evans Library at Texas A&M University was renovated, 70 seats were added to the cafe, and 12 new study rooms were created for collaborative work and presentation practice.

In addition, study booths were designed so that they could also accommodate groups, and a number of "research consultation" workstations were placed near the service desk.

Photo: Sterling C. Evans Library at Texas A&M university, showing two research consultation workstations (Photo © Jud Haggard Photography)

The Sterling C. Evans Library at Texas A&M university, showing two research consultation workstations (photo © Jud Haggard Photography)

Different spaces for different ages

Public libraries have to cater for a wide range of uses including large spaces for events and meetings, plus comfortable browsing areas.

They must also cater for different demographic groups from tots to seniors (see Emy Nelson Decker's 2010 article on the importance of the latter), as well as those with particular needs such as learning English or information on mental health.

Librarians work hard to provide appropriate spaces for different groups, as the following examples, for children and young adults, show.

The Children's Library at Brentwood, Tennessee, is designed like a theme park, with indoor trees, and arches which look as though they are made out of a giant book.

Photo: Children's Library at Brentwood, Tennessee

Part of the Children's Library at Brentwood, Tennessee (photo © LaCresha Kolba)

The Loft in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, North Carolina is a space for young adults, and is specifically designed to allow for collaboration: these young people create as well as consume content, for example producing videos or putting on shows.

Photo: The Loft in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

The Loft in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

One centre, different nodes

Just as the supermarket shopper may at some times want to pop in for just one item, at others for the weekly shop, so may library users sometimes just want to drop or pick up, rather than to browse and borrow.

To allow for this, and make good use of space, there are "express libraries", service points within existing buildings (such as offices, shops or airports) where users can pick up books which they have requested in the online catalogue.

Houston Public Library has a number of such express facilities, which offer full access to the services, data and collections of the entire library system, although only the more popular stock items will be on site.

Brooklyn Public Library also uses the express system: it describes it as providing a network of nodes which are service points rather than housing physical collections.

Sustainable construction

Building libraries that are green and sustain energy is as important as their functionality.

Rangeview Library District's Anythink Brighton (Colorado) branch had a $7.2 million building constructed in 2010 which is believed to be the country's first carbon-positive library.

Thanks to solar panels, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and a gift of carbon-offset credits from the general contractor, the building offsets 167,620 pounds of carbon dioxide, 16 per cent more than anticipated use.

Maple Grove Branch Library in Hennepin County, Minnesota exceeds the Minnesota energy code by more than 40 per cent. Energy is saved through harvesting daylight and using renewable sources of energy. A nearby lake offers hydrothermal cooling and heat.

Photo:  Maple Grove Branch Library Photo: © Lara Swimmer

Maple Grove Branch Library (photo © Lara Swimmer; building and interior design by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. (MS&R)).

The virtual library

Mentioning technological developments in libraries is like thanking people after an event – there are too many to name individually. Fortunately, in the former case it is possible to talk about trends, with a few individual examples.

Paying attention to collaboration

Asked to name one innovation which really stands out, be it the built environment, technology or a service, Molly Raphael mentions technology that enables collaboration across institutions.

Libraries of all types are incorporating into their meeting spaces equipment that allows for webcasting. This means that people can participate in meetings without having to physically attend.

That can be particularly important in communities which are widespread, for instance in a county that covers over 1,000 square miles, many people can't easily get to events.

Academic libraries also routinely allow for this type of collaboration, so that a session or a meeting can be broadcast out to another campus that may be, say, 50 miles away.

Investing in the website

American public library websites tend to be about experiences, using bold images and design, as well as a whole range of social and rich media, to promote their services and invite customer input.

Famous examples include Darien, New York Public Library, and Ann Arbor. The latter is is blog-based, thus allowing for easy addition of events to make it look up to the minute.

Screenshot of Ann Arbor website.

Screenshot of Ann Arbor website

Libraries invest a lot in their websites, according to Molly Raphael, and use them to send out rich media in the form of podcasts and webcasts, as well as inviting users to upload their own content.

Books, e-books and scholarly communication

Books are at least a couple of millennia old; they have just changed media a couple of times (manuscript to print, print to electronic).

E-books constitute only a small percentage of library holdings yet they are the fastest growing media sector. They are commonest in academic libraries – 94 per cent use them, as compared with 72 per cent of public libraries and 33 per cent of school libraries (American Library Association, 2011).

E-books are generally books which have been produced in both electronic and print form, or were "born digital". Another trend is for digitization of the library's print collection, which can then be shared with other libraries.

The University of Michigan Library (MLibrary) began digitizing its collection in 1994. It was the first library to sign an agreement with Google, one of the provisions of which was that digital copies of books be shared with other libraries.

This became the foundation for HathiTrust Digital Library (, based on a collaborative partnership with more than 60 libraries, which has also resulted in joint research on and implementation of a full-text search.

However, the printed book is not at an end, and comes up in a novel form in the trend towards printing on demand. MLibrary has its own Espresso Book Printer – see

MLibrary is in fact an example of a library becoming the hub of scholarly publishing: MPublishing was created in 2009, with a mission to work with authors, editors, researchers and consumers to meet their needs, and to find appropriate economic models and use of technology.

It incorporates the scholarly publishing office and the University of Michigan Press, both of which are part of the library.


Technology can also be used to speed up transactions and automate the mundane jobs of checking in and checking out. RFID is used in Darien (Connecticut) Library for the purposes of self-checking, which means that a circulation desk is no longer needed.

Marquette University Law Library in Milwaukee integrates book and building security at the library's entrance.


The above is a very incomplete snapshot of the best of America's libraries, showing, however, that they combine innovation with customer service, and make a contribution towards economic well-being.

Above all, America's libraries are a powerful demonstration of the best of America's democratic values: a service that provides what its users want and which its users, in turn, are prepared to fight for.


Emerald would like to thank Jud Haggard Photography, LaCresha Kolba and Lara Swimmer for their kind permission to allow us to reproduce their photographs.


American Library Association (2011), "The State of America's Libraries: A report from the American Library Association", American Libraries (Special Issue), available online at [accessed 31 October 2011].

Decker, E.N. (2010), "Baby Boomers and the United States public library system", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 28 No. 4, pp. 605-616.

Fels Research & Consulting (2010), The Economic Value of The Free Library of Philadelphia, available online at: [accessed 31 October 2011].

Valoe, E. (2011), "The evolving library: supporting new teaching, learning styles', American Libraries Magazine, available online at:… [accessed 31 October 2011].