For the better part of two years, the pandemic shut down most public institutions, including libraries. Now that things are getting back to normal, let’s take a look at using the library and the wide variety of library services. Some of them were too little known even before the pandemic.
Library buildings house library collections, which encompass a wide variety of materials. Or, actually, more than materials. Electronic resources make up a growing portion of library collections. The internet makes it possible for people to use library resources without ever visiting the library building.
But the library building houses much more than the collection. It has meeting rooms, exhibit areas, and performance areas, too.
Library services do not depend on the building. You can take advantage of many of them from home. Library personnel take various services to people around the community. After all, libraries serve many different constituencies, including people who for various reasons cannot visit the building.
Everyone knows that libraries have books.
From time to time, someone makes the discovery that libraries have more than books and publishes an article about it. Here is some of what else libraries typically offer printed on paper, although not every library necessarily has all of these:
- Newspapers, possibly from all over the world
- Current magazines
- Current journals of the more academic variety
- Bound periodicals
- Printed music
- Government documents
- Other pamphlets and brochures
Libraries used to collect out-of-town phone books, although I haven’t seen any for a long time. In addition, libraries may have materials that are not printed, but I can’t think of anywhere else to list them:
- Braille materials
You can borrow most of this material and take it home for a certain amount of time. Reference books, periodicals, microforms, and manuscripts must typically stay in the library, although some libraries circulate bound periodicals.
You can find all kinds of recorded music in a variety of formats. Recording began with wax cylinders and moved through 78 rpm discs, 45 rpm discs, long-playing (33 1/3 rpm) discs, reel-to-reel tape, audio cassettes, and compact discs. Technology has since moved beyond physical formats.
Probably every library has some CDs. Only highly specialized libraries own any cylinders. Many libraries have kept their collections of some of the older physical formats, along with the equipment needed to play them.
Audiovisual materials begin with movies on film. These included a wide variety of instructional movies, typically on 16 mm film. Things began to become more complicated with the invention of videocassettes. Beta-max, VHS, and U-matic competed for dominance. VHS eventually prevailed. Some manufacturers issued various audiovisual discs, which never really caught on. Then came DVDs.
Again, libraries will offer some combination of these formats and own the equipment needed to play them.
Publishers used to make a lot of information available on CD-ROM. Computers routinely used to include slots for playing CD-ROMs. No more. The last time I took a CD-ROM to a library to read it, the staff had a lot of trouble getting it to work with their computers. Otherwise, I haven’t thought about CD-ROMs and have no idea how many libraries still have them in their collections.
As with print materials, some audiovisual materials circulate, but not all. Some playback equipment circulates, too.
The personal computer transformed the world. And libraries are part of the world. Now, any library will have a collection of computers for public use. And for the decreasing numbers of people who do not know how to use computers, libraries have staff who will be happy to show them.
Electronic books seemed like an innovation no one cared about until Amazon introduced the Kindle e-reader in 2007. It was quite a gamble. The reader cost about $400 and couldn’t reproduce pictures or display anything in color. On the other hand, customers could download an entire book in about 30 seconds and store hundreds of titles on one Kindle. And then the Kindle made it easy to navigate through the book.
Soon enough, other companies introduced their own e-readers. And no one had to buy a dedicated e-reader. They could get a Kindle or Nook app and download books to their computer or tablet.
The technology has gotten much better and much less expensive. For a while, sales of e-books surpassed sales of printed books, but now, print has regained its lead.
Libraries have always been early adopters of new technology. So it is no surprise that they began to collect e-books and e-book readers right away. It may be a surprise that publishers objected to libraries purchasing e-books.
Typically, a library will have one electronic copy of a book and permission to lend it out to a certain number of simultaneous users. If that number is, say, five, any sixth person who wants to read that title will have to wait, just as if the library had loaned out all copies of a printed book.
Library patrons get a new electronic copy of the book either on their e-reader or one they borrow from the library. At the end of the loan period, it is deleted.
Among other things, you can use library computers to access anything available on the World Wide Web.
All libraries used to have a card catalog. Now, they have websites, and the catalog is one of the items you can find there.
Also, all libraries used to have some printed indexes to their periodical collections—at least the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which helped patrons find magazine articles.
Now, most of those indexes have moved online. The last time I wanted to use the Reader’s Guide, I was surprised that it still exists only in print for coverage of most of the twentieth century.
Otherwise, all these indexes are now available as databases. They are on the internet, but not on the World Wide Web. Medline, an index to medical literature, is operated by the federal government and therefore free for anyone to use. The others require subscriptions. Most subscriptions cost so much that individuals can’t afford them.
Some of these databases, various ones offered by EBSCO, for example, serve the general public to give access to periodical literature. Others serve specialists in various fields. Very often, the databases offer the full text of articles, which you can email to yourself and/or print. In some cases, you have to go to the publisher’s website to read the article.
Other subscription services
Many companies offer digital library services. In some ways, they duplicate or supplement a library’s own services. Therefore, probably only the largest urban libraries subscribe, and probably no library system offers all of them.
If you live in a suburban or rural area, the nearest large urban library might offer library cards to surrounding areas. If you want more digital services than your local library offers, you can ask about access through a larger library nearby.
Here are some major digital library companies:
- OverDrive partners with libraries and schools on every continent to encourage reading. Its platform offers e-books and articles from newspapers and magazines through its Libby It also offers three other services: TeachingBooks provides curated materials to supplement the curriculum in K-12 schools. Sora aims to improve students’ reading experience. Kanopy streaming service offers a curated selection of films for both education and entertainment.
- TumbleBookLibrary aims specifically at younger students, K-6. Offerings include narrated and animated stories. BookFlix, part of venerable Scholastic, likewise specializes in literacy for children. These services provide content far more suitable for children than uncurated sites such as YouTube.
- Hoopla provides curated audiobooks, e-books, magazines, comics, and streaming music, movies, and TV shows.
- PressReader offers thousands of newspapers and magazines. Zinio likewise provides access to magazines.
- LinkedIn Learning and Masterclass offer courses in many popular subjects.
Special collections and archives
I have mentioned circulating and non-circulating aspects of a library collection. Many libraries have another part of their collection behind a locked door that people can examine by appointment. It’s called the special collections room.
In most public libraries, the special collection will include items related to local history. For example, it might have all the back issues of the local newspaper, either paper copies or microfilm. It might hold papers and objects related to a famous resident, an author, say, or a well-known politician. This person does not have to be widely famous to be locally important.
Materials might include first editions of an author’s books, manuscript materials related to the books, books the author owned and annotated, and letters written by and to the author. For that matter, materials may include the author’s typewriter, photographs, or objects of clothing such as a military uniform.
Special collections in larger libraries may include categories of things that no other library wants, including old maps, railroad schedules, baseball cards, comic books, theater programs, mail order catalogs, etc. Not many people would care about these items, but people who do care would come from all over the world to consult them.
The library of things
I have mentioned that libraries loan out e-book readers and audiovisual equipment, and that special collections may include objects related to a locally important person. In short, items no one can read, watch, or listen to.
Collectively, these items are known as realia. Libraries include all kinds of realia in their collections: board games, tools, toys, art works, etc.
Some libraries loan out seeds. That is, they collect heirloom seeds of native plants. The person who borrows them plants them and then, when the plants grow and mature, returns the same number of seeds to the library.
Besides realia in their circulating collections, libraries might own items—very likely but not always in special collections—that they put on display from time to time.
Using the library at home
Since the coming of the World Wide Web and development of modern communications devices, it is not strictly necessary to go to a library to use it. The catalog, for example, is on the library’s web page. Anyone with a library card can use not only the catalog but all of the library’s databases. And as I said, many of the databases make the full text of magazines and journals available online.
Anyone can take advantage of the various digital library services from home, too.
Also, it is not strictly necessary to visit the library for reference services. It has been possible to phone the reference department for generations. Nowadays, you can also communicate with librarians by text, chat, various videoconferencing platforms, and more.
Using the library apart from its collection
Politicians who make funding decisions can easily see that fewer people come into the library to use the collection. They cannot as easily see how many people are using the library from home on their computers. So libraries have plenty of other ways to get people in the door.
Performances and group activities
Many libraries have auditoriums for concerts, plays, movies, and lectures. They may offer regular series of performances. Whether they do or not, they provide space—and an audience—for single events.
Libraries host various group activities. It’s no surprise that these include reading clubs for various age levels. It may surprise people who don’t think about libraries very much that libraries host activities that have nothing to do with reading. Library sponsored classes might include:
- how to use a computer
- how to use particular computer software
- English as a second language classes
- job-hunting skills
- entrepreneurial skills
- various crafts or hobbies—including, at some libraries, yoga or dance
Beyond education, libraries host game nights, Lego building activities, and otherwise simply fun.
Media labs and makerspaces
Libraries own a lot of expensive equipment. Besides computers and copy machines, these include:
- advanced software
- 3-D printers
- laser cutters
- advanced photography equipment
- sound and video recording equipment
They also have staff to teach people how to use it all.
Many libraries assemble their multimedia equipment in a media lab to help people make video presentations, podcasts, brochures, and more. Students can use them for all kinds of class projects. Small businesses can use them to make marketing materials. Families can use them to preserve oral histories, home movies, and such.
A makerspace can include all the same equipment as a media lab and more. In fact, a media lab amounts to a specialized makerspace, although I haven’t come across any that call themselves makerspaces. Makerspaces are not necessarily related to libraries, but many libraries sponsor them and provide personnel to run them.
Besides the equipment already listed, a makerspace can have all kinds of power tools, but it can also use a wide variety of less expensive tools: carpentry tools, sewing tools, even paper, crayons, and paste. Makerspaces appeal to as wide a variety of users as media labs.
Informal meetings and private workspace
Libraries have wi-fi. That makes them excellent spaces for people to take their own laptops and treat the library as office space, whether they use any of the collection or not.
Libraries also function as a “third space,” neither home nor job site. They have meeting rooms that small groups of people can use, but people don’t necessarily need those rooms to meet informally in the library. Libraries offer tables with chairs or easy chairs and sofas. Some even welcome food.
School libraries exist to serve schools. Academic libraries exist to serve students, faculty, and staff of a college or university. Businesses, hospitals, and other organizations have their own libraries. Public libraries must serve everyone, but “everyone” doesn’t mean some vast, undifferentiated population.
The general public includes a number of identifiable constituencies, including groups of people chronically underserved. In fact, libraries are among the institutions that marginalized people are most likely to trust.
To begin with the most obvious, libraries usually have a dedicated children’s librarian and a room set aside for children. The children’s librarian works closely with teachers in area schools to support the curriculum. Above all else, children’s programming in the library supports literacy and love of reading.
Unfortunately, too many school districts have decided that they can no longer afford to hire school librarians. Children in those districts become an underserved constituency that the library must work extra to serve.
Seniors come to the library with a wide range of needs. Some find that retirement gives them time to explore new activities. Others face deteriorating physical and mental health.
The more active seniors will find plenty of classes and seminars of interest. They may want help in keeping up with technology or avoiding falling for scams. Some libraries offer virtual reality technology. People can use it to visit and experience places all over the world that they could not experience otherwise. Or they can use it for virtual bowling and other games.
Homebound seniors can’t go to the library, but the library can come to them. It can be as simple as library staff delivering books and picking them up again, or it can involve special programs in retirement centers and nursing homes.
Some libraries have developed special outreach to dementia patients. And especially in that case, they provide support and services for the seniors’ family members.
Libraries are among the most important resources for anyone looking for work. They frequently offer classes in how to prepare a resume and how to prepare for interviews. They have extensive information on local job openings and various career paths.
These days, even people looking for unskilled jobs must apply on a company website. Library instruction on how to use a computer is a lifeline for people who don’t already have computer skills.
People who do have computer skills can find a lot of the same information online on their own, but they can’t accomplish the networking that comes from getting help from and along with other people.
Starting a new business can be a daunting task. There’s so much to learn. Libraries offer classes in how to start and run a business, demographic information to determine potential customers, and legal aspects such as taxes and labor law.
Everything I wrote earlier about makerspaces and using the library for an office especially appeals to entrepreneurs.
Everyone can appreciate a building––such as a library––that is open to anyone with no metal detectors. Especially ones where they aren’t expected to spend money and can easily find restrooms. Homeless people especially need such facilities. They use libraries as a day shelter.
Unfortunately, homeless people often make the general public uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Library staff has the task of balancing the varying needs of everyone who enters the building. Some libraries have started to hire social workers both for their understanding of how to deal with the homeless population and their ability to train library staff to deal with them more comfortably and effectively.
A disability is defined as any physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairment that hinders a person’s full and effective participation in society. Disabilities may or may not be obvious. A person in a wheelchair may be disabled or may be recovering from a temporary condition. People can suffer from a range of deficiencies of sight or hearing. No one can distinguish people with a learning disorder simply by looking at them.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires libraries, like any other public institution, to make their facilities accessible. In addition, libraries make sure their collections and services are accessible to all the disabled. Unfortunately, what is helpful to people with some disabilities may erect barriers for people with different disabilities.
Generations ago, immigrants arrived in major coastal cities and stayed there. Now, arriving by air instead of by ship, even smaller cities host many different ethnic groups. Immigrants often lack good command of both English and technology. In fact, some come from ethnic groups with no written language, so not only can they not read English, they have no experience reading anything.
Libraries tackle special the special needs of immigrants by training small numbers of them to go into their communities and train others. Very often, these trainers choose to hold their own classes in library meeting rooms.
Librarians and library personne
Not everyone who works in a library is a librarian. Librarians have master’s degrees in library and information science. That said, paraprofessionals perform many of the same tasks as librarians.
Library patrons are most likely to encounter reference librarians, who answer their questions, and reader advisory librarians, who help them pick out fiction they would enjoy reading.
Behind the scenes, some librarians decide which materials that library needs to acquire. Others order materials and make them ready for the public to use. Still others prepare cataloging records to make it possible to find library materials. And because modern libraries depend so much on advanced technology, still other librarians keep all the computers and peripherals up to date and maintain the library website, which includes the catalog.
Organized librarianship is also at the forefront of at least two important social issues. First, librarians stand up for free speech and free access to information. That means resisting attempts to ban books or prevent various groups of people from using meeting rooms. Second, they work to bridge the so-called digital divide between people who have easy access to dependable wi-fi and those who don’t.
Explore my earlier articles on library services.