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Public Libraries, Public Support? the Mission Behind Buildings, Books and Bytes

Laura Weiss outlines a major American survey that looked at the disparity between key librarians views of the future, and what the public who used those libraries really wanted.

With more and more Americans turning to their desk-top computers for information, American libraries have been struggling to redefine their role. Numerous library leaders, aware of the seismic impact of the digital revolution, have crafted visions for their field that include cutting edge, building-without-walls, digital libraries, as well as partnerships with other public service information providers, such as schools and public broadcasters.

But little has been known about the public's willingness to subscribe to an expansive vision of libraries as technology leaders in the digital age. Numerous public opinion surveys over the years had documented Americans' special affection for their public libraries. But how far is the public willing to go to extend to libraries a leadership role in the digital age, and what challenges will libraries face in communicating to the public their drive to create a leading role for themselves?

To begin to address these issues, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation asked the Benton Foundation to conduct a study that would measure the distance between a group of library leaders' visions for the future of their institution and the public's willingness to support that vision. Specifically, the Kellogg Foundation wanted to help its Human Resources for Information Systems Management (HRISM) grantees -- which included institutions as diverse as community freenets and the American Library Association -- pinpoint where the public supported or failed to support libraries as they confronted the digital era. More broadly, the two foundations -- led by Tom Reis at Kellogg and Susan Bales and Larry Kirkman and Benton -- sought to identify specific communications challenges for libraries as they endeavored to stake out a new identify.

The result of this exploration was "Buildings, Books and Bytes," a study released in November that has elicited widespread, positive reaction from the library community -- both individual librarians and professional associations alike -- as a needed call to action to a profession struggling to carve out a meaningful role for itself in a rapidly changing information landscape. Briefly, the study found significant gaps between library leaders' expectations for their profession and those of the public. The public lends libraries a degree of overall support rarely enjoyed by other American public institutions. Yet, Americans are not yet ready to cede to libraries the role of technology leader. And, in a finding that shocked many members of the library community, Americans appear to have low regard for librarians as a cadre of skilled, highly trained information professionals, believing that volunteers can staff libraries just as well -- and for fewer tax dollars. Thus, the public's message to the library world was clear: "do not simply assume that if you say 'we are now technology leaders, follow us,' we will follow. We need to be convinced. "

The report apparently struck a responsive chord in the American library community. In November alone, all or parts of "Building Books and Bytes" was accessed over 4600 times from the Benton Foundation website [1]. Over 650 copies of the report have been mailed out to libraries, librarians and other interested individuals worldwide. In addition, the American Library Association distributed 20,000 copies to its members. Communications Daily, a highly-regarded communications trade publication, covered the release of the report, as have other U.S. media outlets.

Indicative of the library community's receptive response was a September editorial by Library Journal, which urged its readers to take seriously the report's finding that "despite years of promoting library advocates, the profession has failed to convince, or even communicate to a significant number of Americans the idea that librarians are highly skilled professionals needed for a capable of leading them anywhere." The president of the Public Library Association, Ginnie Cooper, praised the report for "making a fine contribution to our understanding of how people view libraries." Individual librarians weighed in as well with reactions to the report; a librarian based in a suburb or Washington, DC expressed anguish at the report's finding -- mirroring her own personal experience -- of the public's apparently low regard for librarians' ' professional status.

Genesis of the Report

When the report was originally conceived in the winter of 1996, both the Benton and Kellogg foundations believed that libraries needed to clarify where they stood with the public as growing numbers of Americans turned to their desktop computers for information. Library leaders over the years had develop and enunciated a set of policies and visions for their profession. Yet the public will to support these policies was unclear and the intensity of that backing untapped. Recent American history has been replete with examples of opinion leaders, pushing reform agendas, who had failed to pay sufficient heed to the public's stake in and understanding of their mission. Attempts in the early 1990s to reform the American health care system had met with public resistance at least in part because of leaders' failure to take into account fully enough how their desire for change conflicted with some of American's long held views and values.

Thus, the methodology for "Buildings, Books and Bytes, " was designed explicitly to ferret out discordance between the public and library opinion leaders. The methodology was modeled on studies conducted over the last several years by the Public Agenda Foundation that measured the difference in public and elite opinion in two key areas of American public policy: health care and education reform. The studies found significant gaps between opinion and policy leaders' views on what reforms should be undertaken and the public's willingness to subscribe to and support those initiatives. Thus, the Benton and Kellogg foundations strove to help libraries understand public sentiment toward them as they waded into the tumultuous waters of the digital age -- and perhaps through a carefully constructed communications campaign, avoid some of the pitfalls that had thwarted the goals of other policy leaders as they attempted to sway the public toward their views.

To begin the process, the Benton Foundation analyzed the written vision statements of the HRISM grantees to develop an overview of library leaders' visions for the future of their institutions. Leigh Estabrook, Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, then conducted telephone interviews with each of the grantees to tease out a fuller understanding of some issues -- including budgetary constraints -- that were only glimpsed in the written statements.

To probe the public's views, the Benton Foundation secured the services of two nationally-recognized public opinion firms: Lake Research of Washington, DC and The Tarrance Group, a survey research firm based in Alexandria, Virginia. The firms and Benton Foundation staff (Susan Bales and Laura Weiss) designed a survey questionnaire to assess Americans' general support for libraries and their reactions to libraries as technology leaders. The national survey, which was conducted in the April 1996, consisted of a random sample of 1,015 Americans. Additional survey data was obtained from the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. One focus group was conducted. Residents of a suburb of Washington, DC, all of whom were library users, participated in the focus group. Andrew Blau at Benton placed the report's findings in the context of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and other communications policy issues, and Larry Kirkman, Benson's Executive Director, provided oversight of the project.

In May, the HRISM grantees met in Washington, DC to observe the focus group, debate the draft findings of the report and discuss the possibility of crafting a communications campaign that would reposition libraries as pivotal community information providers. The participants discussed several positive findings from the poll. These included a finding that families with children are much more likely to have computers at home and also to use their local public library, suggesting a strong nexus between children, computers and libraries. The participants also reflected on some challenges unearthed by the survey research. They debated how to contend with the apparent lack of support for several library services and roles among younger Americans, those in the 18-24 age group. (Libraries may be able to take advantage of the support families with children lend to their libraries and their relatively heavy use of computers. A 1995 Public Agenda study on public attitudes toward educational reform, "Assignment Incomplete," found that eight in 10 Americans now consider computer skills part of "the basics," along with reading, writing and arithmetic.)

The notion of libraries as "community information brokers" possesses even greater salience today than it did last spring when the HRISM grantees first explored the possibility of a communications campaign built around this concept. The Federal-State Joint Board, which makes recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission on implementing the 1996 Telecommunications Act, recommended in November that libraries and schools be granted significant discounts on monthly services charges and on the costs of installing telecommunications hardware. The implicit recognition of libraries as pivotal players in the public service information world, and the economic resources which libraries will now be able to bring to the table, could give them a substantial leg up in the emerging digital marketplace.

Moreover, as a forthcoming Benton/Libraries for the Future publication, "Local Places, Global Connections" will document, libraries are already using digital technology to create vital community partnerships with other information providers. This report, due out this winter, details libraries' collaborations and alliances nationwide -- from Washington state to Vermont -- with educational, small business and other community institutions. The report provides practical and theoretical models for constructing these alliances -- using computer technology and digital collections -- in communities across the US.

But additional work needs to be done before a communications campaign for libraries can be unveiled. More focus groups will have to be conducted nationwide. The apparent skepticism about libraries' role as cutting-edge information providers signals to libraries that the public is lagging behind the profession's forward looking visions for its future. Clearly, one focus group can only hint at where the public is heading on this vital issue. Thus, additional research is critical to flesh out the language and messages that will help libraries understand where the public is coming from -- and how to respond to the public's most strongly felt values and attitudes.

Libraries have their work cut out. But unlike many other US public institutions, which today are greeted with considerable public skepticism, libraries start their campaign from a tremendous base of popular support. Witness the enthusiastic public reception to new public libraries in Phoenix, San Francisco and elsewhere. Libraries are being touted as a vital partner in attempts to revitalize central city cores. Indeed, libraries are ahead of many professions in moving toward a communications campaign and repositioning that takes into account the tumultuous effect of the digital age. Many other institutions in American society are just waking up to the fact of the digital revolution, and that fundamental changes may be required. In this sense, libraries are already way "ahead of the curve".


[1] Benton Foundation Website,

Author Details

Laura Weiss is the author of "Buildings, Books and Bytes"
Email: lauraw@benton.org