Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Who Uses the Public Library?"

"It is also relevant, and perhaps more important, to inquire into the relationship of the occupational composition of the public library's clientele to that of the population as a whole. Is the library's clientele a representative sample of the total adult population by occupation? Again the answer is "No." Professional and managerial people, students, and white-collar workers make greater use of the public library, relatively speaking, than do the other occupational groups." (pp.33-34)

"The young use the library more than the old, the better-educated more than the lesser educated and women more than, and differently from, men. The public library serves the middle class, defined either by occupation or by economic status, more than either the upper or lower classes."

Good social progressives that most librarians are, it is taken a priori that the number of working-class and poor people who use the library should be increased. But working people, as a single homogenous group, generally do not go to libraries. The homeless go there; some immigrants go there; and often the children of the poor (especially the children of recent immigrants) go there. But the people librarians most desperately want to reach out to--working-class adults--never do.

Is that a problem? Are we wasting our time, having been chasing these people now for almost a century?


Nancy S. said...

“The report attempts to tell what the public
library does, not what it can do or should do.
This is important enough to repeat: the report
attempts to tell what the public library actually
does.” (Berelson, 1949 pg. 3)

"Berelson threw down the gauntlet and demanded
that professionals and academics remove
themselves from the idealistic Victorian notions
that initiated the public library movement and
begin to address the gritty questions of what real
libraries do and what real patrons do." (Taken from Successive approximations : The story of information behaviour
research by
George R. Goodall at ).

Striving to bring in people into libraries who are not typically patrons is not wasteful but what libraries are doing and have been doing that isn't working is wasteful. Berelson points out that libraries must study themselves and what they are currently doing before being able to instigate change and get these sections of the public into libraries. But then the question still stands, how do you get this segment of the population into libraries even with self-reflection and modification of programs?

Bethany said...

I think the saying "you can't please all the people all the time" might apply a bit here. I think as long as libraries put a good effort into making sure they have created a space that is safe and comfortable for everyone, with a variety of materials. The materials are there, but working class people might be too busy and not have time for a library in their lives, or might at some times but not at other times. I think book clubs that meet at NIGHT at a good way to get working people involved (I've heard this straight from the mouth of a single mom who works all day). But another question is, why spend so much trying to get a reluctant group to get involved, when there are populations (like children) that have heavy library use. Do you spread yourself an inch across in all directions, or do you dig 6 feet down and really work to draw in or keep a few groups, like children, that might use the library for years to come. I think it's a big enough problem to keep people coming that already do, let alone exerting so much effort on reluctant groups. As long as libraries anticipate their needs with a wide range of materials, I think it might be all they can do, which isn't settling by any means, but realizing that you have to go with what works, and it's wasteful, as Nancy says, to continuously do something that has shown not to be effective- esp when there are funds at stake.

Alycia said...

I think that the problem of the working class and libraries may not be so much of a problem that is solved by attracting workers to the library but by fighting to help make workers lives more condusive to being able to come to the library, i.e. helping to make sure that all people can have the time and the necesities that are required to be able to read a book or to spend time learning about something.
I think it is telling in this article and others that we have read that the middle class is the largest user group in libraries, and it may seem that this group would have the time and the money to be able to focus on themselves more so than those who often are struggling to get by.
It may seem that I am saying that this is a problem that is solved on an individual rather than professional basis, but I am of the opinion that if ALA can speak out against the Iraq war, then they can be opposed to the fact that some people can fully utilize the library while others never get the chance. Also, librarians can attempt to create programming and features of the library more appealing to the working class, as Bethany mentioned, and attempt to keep in mind the staggered levels of literacy and interest in reading among different groups of people. I don't think it's fair to give up on the working class because they are less likely to use the library, I see it as all the more reason to try to invite them in...

Deborah said...

As a "good social progressive," I really, really like Alycia's suggestion that the ALA/libraries get involved in workers' rights in order to attract segments of the population who are missing from library patronage. It's a great suggestion and could be more effective than how libraries and librarians have operated in the past.'s incredibly ambitious--what steps could the ALA actually take? Does the ALA really have any political or social agency in this arena? It certainly doesn't have any economic weight to throw against employers like Wal-mart...if labor unions have failed, how can the ALA be expected to have any influence in the plight of the working class and working poor?

SarahStumpf said...

For many working class folks that have immigrated here from other countries, language is an issue. Are libraries carrying books, newspapers, periodicals, refrence info, etc in other languages? Do their refrence librarians speak other languages (particularly spanish)? Are there adult books for learning English or do the immigrants have to be embarassed and go to the children's section to find materials to learn? And if so, are they advertising these services to non-English populations? Are the branches with non-English stuff located near the non-English speaking populations?

I think another way that libraries may be able to get non-English speakers into the library would be to use library facilities for ESL classes. Get an ESL class going in a confrence room, use materials they can find in the library, and show the ESL people WHERE in the library they can find non-English or learning English books. It would get them in the library and show them resources.

Brendan said...

What about the fact the this article was written 50 years ago? I think society as a whole probably had more leisure time then than they do now, with all the clubs, associations, long hours at work, and other obligations that vie for peoples' time. Part of the reason such attempts to lure working class adults into the library have failed could be seen as a by-product of people simply having more to do (that they HAVE to do, as opposed to what they WANT to do).

Heather said...

I agree with Brendan... it's worth noting that these figures are from the late 1930s and 1940s. The library was an entirely different place then. Were there Literacy Volunteers for the uneducated? Book clubs for adults? Large print books for the elderly and visually-challenged? Was there community programming? Book collections and resources for job-hunters? All of these services were non-existant then, and currently attract a wide variety of people to public libraries today... and this is not to mention the diverse circulating materials... movies, music, software, and the in-library services like internet access.

Lia said...

Everyone here has excellent comments, and I agree with most of them. I do think Alycia has a great point -- that many segments of our society, particularly the working class -- simply do not have the time to go to the library and read. ALA could take a stand on that issue and attempt to push for more material and programming that the poor and working classes need (such as language classes, classes and workshops for computers) and might want. Even making computers available without having to get a library card (which homeless people cannot get) is also a start. ALA has made reading and going to the libraries a big issue for children; why not working adults? Do libraries ever reach out to businesses or places of employment to either form partnerships or at least have some advertising with them to let workers know that the library is there waiting to serve them?

Ultimately, though, this is a societal issue that libraries can only go so far in remedying -- people have less time than ever in this country and that is the economic reality we live in. Libraries have such potential to sources of leisure, information and education that it is upsetting when the people who could most use them do not but that should not stop libraries from trying different methods to get people in the door and using their facilities. As others have said, libraries should be mindful not to waste time and resources on things that are not working but we should still continue to try.

Gillian D. said...

One of the biggest problems with drawing patrons, new and old, to libraries is a lack of marketing. As Sarah said, if there are materials for non-English speakers, are they advertised in a place that they will be seen?

Too often libraries fail to promote their programs outside of libraries and schools.

megan bacon said...

I agree with the last comment about marketing but I want to point out to that marketing can often be mis read as informative but in a more financial way. The discussion today in class quickly fell into the difference between the library then, smelling funny, old narly books etc...and we heard how great it would be to have a barnes and noble feel with a coffee bar and everything. I say good riddens to this coffee shop and this insane notion that let's homoginize the library, everybody else is doing it. Maybe librarians should spend a little more time thinking about what's happening in the library thinking and engagement wise and not be so concerned with numbers? I'm not sure that Melville Dewey had the right idea by pumping the library full of efficiety and civil service duties. I think often maybe we get to wrapped up in being able to provide all the information when that information is really only useful if comprehension is involved. So really what is the role of the library and what are we going to do for our part in the advancement of soceity? Are we providers or educators?