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Luminary Lectures @ Your Library

Transforming the Urban Public Library

Molly Raphael - April 18, 2003

Urban public libraries all across North America are experiencing a great renaissance as individuals and communities rediscover these centers of lifelong learning, multi-media and technology, multi-cultural programming, civic engagement, and community center of democracy. The lecture will present ideas as to why changes in society have affected public libraries and brought about a transformation, illustrate the transformations that are being implemented in several cities, and then look specifically at the District of Columbia and its public library system. How far has DCPL come? How far does it have to go? What are the chances that DCPL will get there? And what does Ralph Nader have to do with DCPL’s future?

Luminary Lectures @ your library
Presented by
Mary E. (“Molly”) Raphael, Director
Public Library of the District of Columbia
April 18, 2003

Good morning. I am honored to be invited to speak to you today about the urban public libraries in the United States.

My presentation will focus on the changing roles of public libraries in the United States, particularly urban public libraries. I will use examples from around the country with a more concentrated focus at the end of my talk, on the District of Columbia Public Library.

I speak from the perspective of 30 years in one urban public library environment, with nearly the same number of years of participation in professional associations and activities. I have seen public libraries from a variety of perspectives…from the “front line” as a children’s librarian and reference librarian as well as from various management positions including, for the past five years, as library director.

Public libraries are enjoying a great renaissance around the country as cities and communities like Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Nashville (to name a few) rediscover these most democratic of American institutions – open to all regardless of education, income, age, background or views. Why is this renaissance taking place? And why now?

Libraries are well known and trusted institutions – located in communities as large and diverse as New York, Los Angeles, or Washington and as small as towns of a few thousand or even hundred people. We are a part of the American landscape. In nearly every town or community throughout our country, you can find a public library. This means that if you were born and raised in Massachusetts, you could move to California when you were a teenager and find a library not too different from the one that you visited when you were growing up. Then, if you moved again to, let us say, Texas, there would be another public library in your community that once again offered many of the same programs and services that you had come to know in these other communities.

This scenario could be repeated many times. Public libraries are ubiquitous in the United States. They are more similar than they are different, even as we each try to tailor our services to our own communities.

Our role has always been to help create an informed and thoughtful citizenry – whether through supporting children and young people who are developing early language and literacy skills, or engaged in formal schooling, or expanding horizons and learning as is the out-of-school adult engaged in lifelong learning.

In a recent report issued by the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services, Beverly Sheppard wrote: “A true learning society should provide widespread, integrated, systematic, and equitable access to learning resources and skills.” This is exactly what our “reinvented” libraries are doing.

Not long ago, pundits were predicting the end of public libraries in the United States, made obsolete by technology and the Internet as well as the mega-bookstores that are opening all across our country. These pundits seem, however, to have now been silenced. What we see instead are libraries adapting to these changes in our society and in our individual communities – thriving on the changes of the past decade including:

  • the huge influx of new immigrants, particularly to the metropolitan areas;
  • networked technology that makes information resources available even to the smallest of library buildings and communities; and,
  • perhaps overlooked by the pundits, the loss of many of the places within our communities that helped bring people together in the way community resources like public libraries do.

Libraries are welcoming environments, that everyone in the community “owns” – with many locations in neighborhoods of great diversity and with hours of operation that accommodate people’s personal and professional lives.

Allow me to describe in more detail the concept of the “library as place”, particularly within the metropolitan areas of the United States.

I spoke earlier about the renaissance of public libraries – this is very much a rebirth focused on the library as place, as center of community, a space where the members of the community feel welcomed and “at home”. Libraries are able to create these environments because we work very hard to have our libraries connect to our communities.

First, with our staffing, we try to reflect the diversity of our community. This is a challenge for most urban public libraries because we do not have the number of librarians we need from diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds, reflecting our community demographics. We are, nevertheless, proactively seeking to represent the diversity of our communities in the staff who serve them. We also engage our on-board staff in learning about other cultures as well as provide frequent opportunities for cultural sensitivity training.

We also actively seek input and involvement through focus groups and community leaders, to gain a better understanding of community needs and priorities.

This also results in culturally diverse programs, collections, and resources because communities we serve are rarely homogeneous. For example, the new Near North Branch of the Chicago Public Library provides a welcoming learning environment for the city’s wealthiest residents from the so-called “Gold Coast” neighborhood as well as those living in the public housing buildings of Cabrini Green. Another example comes from the Queens Borough Public Library in New York at its Flushing Branch with its extensive English-as-a-second-language program (the second largest in the US) that helps newcomers from many other countries become an active part of the community and helps immigrants understand their newly adopted homeland.

These examples demonstrate how adapting basic concepts of library service to meet the needs of particular communities help these institutions become community focal points and places of destination. These government-funded institutions contribute to creating neighborhood dialogue and understanding, in branch libraries throughout the cities they serve.

It is especially in urban central libraries that we see so-called “destination spaces” being created. These are spaces that draw people back over and over again; spaces that people set out to go to visit, not just places that they visit when they are in the area. Dynamic new central libraries are attractive neighbors in downtown areas because they bring foot-traffic and repeat customers. They contribute to thriving and reviving downtowns, offering programs and services that celebrate cultural heritage and contribute to economic vibrancy. These urban central libraries “speak” to all of the residents, offering welcoming destinations that help provide opportunities for meeting and interacting with people outside of our own neighborhoods.

Again, let me illustrate with some examples. Chicago’s (relatively) new central library, the Harold Washington Center, generated interest and engaged the city residents, as it was being planned and built a decade ago. Today, the location of the new central library is credited, by Mayor Daley, with contributing significantly to the revitalization of its South Loop area of the city, where nearly 30,000 new housing units have been built in the past decade. The central library serves the entire city, but it also focuses some services on the residents and businesses that consider this to be their local “branch” library. Chicago built in a number of attractive and useful spaces in its new central library, including an auditorium that is heavily booked for programs, performances, and lectures, as well as a grand ceremonial space on the top floor called the “Winter Garden” that is used for ceremonial events by the library and city government. This space, in addition, has become a great revenue producer as it is booked two years in advance for wedding receptions, corporate holiday parties, etc.

Another example would be the new Los Angeles Central Library. After a tragic fire nearly destroyed the library in 1986, the city rallied and used the fire as a catalyst for rebuilding the old structure as well as a magnificent new addition that is now a true “destination” space. The space is so grand that it has now become one of the premiere places for cultural and charitable fundraising events. Annual events such as the “LA Kids Read Festival” held in June brings children and families together from all across the Los Angeles area, attracting over 20,000 people last year.

Seattle is currently building a dramatic, futuristic looking central library, expected to open in about a year. Both the public and private sectors will contribute to making this building a reality. As you might guess, Seattle is placing much focus on technology and plans to create very visible and central spaces featuring technology, while still retaining its more traditional resources of books and other materials. One issue that has been made very clear to those of us in leadership positions in urban public libraries is that while our customers want the new technologies in our new libraries, they want it to supplement, not replace, the more traditional resources.

In the city of Nashville, a very traditional-looking new central library opened nearly two years ago, sited opposite the historic state capital building. It includes a traditional “great reading room” as well as a less-traditional conference center, an amenity that was badly needed in this particular community. The conference center includes a full catering-style kitchen and flexible space for lectures, breakout rooms, receptions, banquets, etc.

I could tell you similar stories for many other cities such as Denver, Phoenix, Multnomah County, Minneapolis, Jacksonville, Memphis, Vancouver (BC), and others – some are just beginning like Jacksonville, and others are providing service from new or renovated central and branch libraries such as Denver. It is not surprising that when a national rating of public libraries has been conducted, Denver ranks first with dramatic increases in use and high customer satisfaction. Also high in the ratings is Multnomah County in Oregon, again a library system that has enjoyed significant investments in its facilities, resources, and programs. Other cities that are rebuilding also achieve high ratings.

All of the cities that are building or have built new central libraries are also actively engaged in branch library building and renovation programs at the same time – creating neighborhood as well as citywide inviting public spaces and destinations. Los Angeles plans to build or renovate 33 branch libraries between 1998 and 2004. Seattle too is investing in its branches by implementing major improvements in its 22 branches and building five new ones. Nashville built a new central library and five new regional branches.

So what makes these newly built or renovated public spaces inviting? Why are people coming to these new libraries even when they can meet their information needs in other ways?

  1. First, library planners are paying attention to their individual communities. So Nashville builds a conference center because the city needs this kind of space in downtown. Or Chicago engages in redesigning space in its relatively new central library when it becomes clear that there is a growing residential community that wants the intimacy of a branch library in the neighborhood.
  2. Second, planners are also paying a great deal of attention to the space around the library. Library designs now incorporate elements that elevate the importance of street presence. This means being able to look into buildings so that potential library customers see people like themselves in the buildings – engaged in interesting and captivating pursuits. It means allowing teens to be actively involved in creating space for themselves in libraries, as Phoenix and Los Angeles have done. It means creating children’s rooms where children and their parents find exciting and visually stimulating surroundings so that children think going to the library on a Saturday is just about the best activity they could imagine. It means making sure that the library’s role in democratizing a community is apparent in the program and services it offers. A non-librarian friend of mine says that when he goes to Los Angeles, he tries to stay in a certain hotel because it is located next to the LA Central Library. He says that there “is always something going on in the Library”. Thus, the unpredictability of business travel, which prevents most people from engaging in cultural or recreational events (e.g. the theater or a sporting event), is not a problem. No unused theater or baseball tickets; instead, he feasts on the serendipity of ever changing library programs and activities.
  3. Third, library planners are paying attention to what public space planners are saying. The April issue of American Libraries has an article entitled “How to become a great public space”. The article features an interview with two officials from the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit association that helps organizations and communities design and improve public spaces and buildings. Phil Myrick from PPS says, “Information is easy to come by these days; good public spaces are not….In the future, people may not need to come to the library for its information. But they will come in droves if they perceive of it as a desirable place.” Myrick goes on to describe what makes great public space, using the NYPL and Multnomah County (OR) as illustrations of public libraries that have created great public spaces. In these cases as well as other great public spaces, he describes the four qualities that make these spaces succeed: access and linkages, comfort and image, uses and activities, and sociability. Direct attention is paid not only to what is in a library but also to how the library relates to its surroundings. New York has the very successful Bryant Park beside it as well as concessionaires on the other side. Multnomah took great care to relate to the streets and its neighbors, and added a Starbucks for the convenience of its customers. Nashville built in space to be leased out to private sector firms and now has a café and gift shop for the convenience of library customers.
  4. Fourth, we have recognized and embraced the opportunities for partnerships and collaboration with organizations and institutions that share common goals. These collaborations make people think of libraries in new ways, resulting in the breaking down of old images. An initiative currently underway in the District of Columbia at our central library involves a collaboration with the economic development cluster of the District Government as well as the US Small Business Administration. We plan to launch a new information and support center for small businesses in the District, bringing together all of the activities needed to launch and sustain small businesses throughout their lifecycle. Another example taken from my own library is the partnership we have formed with local health and medical institutions to enhance health education, as illustrated by our “Diabetes for Life Learning Center” collaboration with the Washington Hospital Center and Medstar Diabetes Institute.
  5. Finally, and certainly of great importance, is remaining true to our mission. Public libraries have contributed to an informed citizenry since our earliest days. We have always recognized our role in lifelong learning, not just for those engaged in formal education but also for those who seek to improve their lot in life or learn about anything of interest. In this role, we have continued many of our traditional services but have also added new ones. Many of our customers keep coming to our libraries for the same services we offered years ago. An article in Library Quarterly from July 2002, that studied what draws people to two central urban public libraries in Canada – Toronto and Vancouver – concluded that despite pressures for decentralization, central libraries are still unique and vital resources. The authors noted that those who seek to focus only on branch libraries “have not appreciated the public thirst for access to large and comprehensive research collections in support of their work-related and personal goals.”

I would like to turn now to how libraries have adapted and modified their services to embrace the new as well as traditional needs of their communities. New services and collateral services bring learners together. We have not only added the computers but also offered training in basic computer skills. Our training is particularly important in low-income communities where for-fee courses may not be an option. The training has been very popular with senior citizens, who are among our most loyal customers and find the non-threatening, neutral environment of a public library very comfortable and welcoming. Our classes, often taught by volunteers from the business community, on how to use the Internet as well as other computer uses such as word processing for resumes, job applications, school assignments, etc., are very popular and are filled the day that they are announced.

As we librarians have become “information navigators” – or perhaps “knowledge navigators” might be a better way of describing how our staff has adapted to these new opportunities, we are helping people learn how to use the technology and move critically to assess and analyze content.

Two major sources of funding have contributed to public libraries’ opportunity to embrace new technologies, even as we work with less funding from tax dollars than we need. First, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has brought computer hardware, software, and technical support to public libraries all across the country. Second, the “E-rate” or universal service fund, a new program authorized by the Congress, provides indirect, subsidized funding for schools and public libraries to wire and make technology available. The funding formula results in communities with the greatest number of low-income households in the country receiving the highest level of funding. This means that many communities, that would not have been able to afford high-speed access to the Internet, are able to do so. In the District of Columbia, we receive about $300,000 annually through the e-rate program.

Public Libraries are the number one access point to computers for those who do not have them at home or in their offices. This is very important in Washington, D.C. and other metropolitan areas where there are many low-income residents. Also, since public libraries have this high-speed Internet access, many residents and small business owners prefer to use computers at their public libraries because they are faster than the ones they have at home or work. New technologies have also been highly effective in bringing new customers into public libraries, especially teenagers, as well as offering new opportunities for learning to regular customers such as seniors.

I have described changes in urban public libraries in general, but what about right here in Washington. Let me first briefly profile the Washington community and metropolitan area.

Washington, our nation’s capital, has a population of about 600,000 residents, in a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people. We are a city and region of extremes. We are home to the very rich and to the very poor, with a majority of middle class residents in the overall region. In education, we have one of the highest levels of residents with graduate and professional degrees, yet an estimated 37% of the residents of the city who are18 years old or older do not have a high school degree or its equivalent. We have a broad spectrum of cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity, ranging from low-income immigrants to members of the diplomatic and international communities. Government is the number one industry, but not just government employees but also lobbyists, lawyers, and government contractors. Being the nation’s capital also results in many professional and trade associations choosing the Washington region for their headquarters. We also have a large number of institutions of higher education, offering advanced degrees in numerous fields of study. The city and metropolitan area benefit from having one of the best health care and medical institution communities in the world. Finally, the Washington metropolitan area boasts the second or third most robust information technology and telecommunications industries in the United States.

The District of Columbia Public Library was created over 100 years ago. The library system includes the central facility, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, 21 full service branch libraries built between 1910 and 1990, 5 smaller community libraries, a mobile service to seniors, and a mobile outreach program to preschool children and their daycare providers called ROAR (Reach Out And Read).

In 1999, we began our Library’s first-ever strategic planning effort. The yearlong effort engaged a 30-member Strategic Planning Coordinating Committee representing the broad diversity of our community in all dimensions (age, gender, race and ethnic group, educational level, income level, profession, neighborhood, etc.). We also conducted numerous focus groups to look at issues from the perspective of particular constituencies (teenagers, business-owners, technology users, persons who were homeless, parents, etc.) as well as conducted 3,500 surveys in neighborhoods across the city. The surveys were completed both inside and outside libraries.

The results of this intensive effort identified three strategic directions for the library:

  1. Lifelong Learning with particular emphasis on children and youth. Examples of programs and service that were enhanced or newly developed are preschool programs and ROAR (low income areas to expose very young children to reading and language development); Homework Help Plus Centers to support formal learning for 6 – 18 year olds; the “Plus” part of these centers for other lifelong learners focuses particularly on “family literacy”. We continue to support our partnership with local colleges and universities through the College Information Center located at our central library with two satellites in branch libraries. We are also trying to create space that attracts teenagers to learn and grow; this has proved to be very challenging.
  2. Information literacy with particular emphasis on technology. In 1997, we received a Microsoft/Gates grant that eventually resulted in placing networked computers in all library locations. In addition, through the Telecommunications Infrastructure Trust Fund, all library facilities in DC were wired to provide high speed Internet access. With these two basic changes, librarians could now truly see their role as being “information navigators”. We continually face the challenge of training staff with many employees with 20-or-more years of service, who have very little technology background or training. The challenge is compounded by few training dollars available for the past two decades. Clearly, we have had to do a lot of “catch-up” training and activities. We have also taken very seriously our role to train the public who use our computers. We have a customer training coordinator, a position first funded by a grant but now funded through our local appropriation as well as many, many volunteer trainers. Our greatest need now is more points of access to accommodate our enormous demand as well as a reliable source of funding to refresh our equipment.
  3. The “Library as Place”, or the Library as center of community. This priority is perhaps the most urgent and compelling yet, in some aspects, the most unexpected. Despite the increased use of technology and availability of information from a wide variety of sources, people will not give up the chance to be together. We have found this to be especially true since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 – people want and need a place to come together for civic engagement and civil discourse – for understanding and to feel a sense of community. Thus, we have made our top priority to “fix our facilities”. We have developed a master plan, with the first year’s agenda being to rebuild or renovate four branch libraries, focusing on neighborhood development. (Currently working on four branches: Anacostia, Benning, Watha T. Daniel/Shaw, and Tenley-Friendship.) We also see exciting possibilities for our central library, to either renovate or build new, creating grand public spaces where the community can come together for a common purpose. (Cover story in Citypaper.) What this means for us is building partnerships with residents, businesses, and organizations, making projects connect with the elements of the communities they serve.

Lest you think all is well at the District of Columbia Public Library, let me assure you that it is not. Nor is all well across this country in public libraries, as we heard on National Public Radio just yesterday or see in the messages coming from the American Library Association’s “Campaign for America’s Libraries”. In the District of Columbia, we have a dedicated staff and Board of Trustees, wonderfully loyal customers, and caring and committed Friends of the Library. We have many supporters on the Council and a Mayor who believes in the importance of education. But our public funding level is woefully inadequate. The dismal condition of our buildings is the result of decades of neglect and disinvestment. Our materials budget, or “book fund”, has received no increase – not even for inflation – over the past decade. Our staffing level is two-thirds what it was 30 years ago, and we have just implemented a reduction in hours, which began on March 3rd. Our ability to support and expand our technology program, just to meet current needs, is sorely lacking. Our needs in areas such as staff training and safety and security are unmet. So why do I speak with such optimism, touting our model programs and what we hope to become? Partly because I am an optimist, I imagine, but also because we believe that the public library in the nation’s capital must become one of the premiere libraries in the country and we are determined to take this library system to new heights.

In August 2002, we received an offer of assistance that may help us achieve our goals. Late last summer, I received a call from Ralph Nader, who was compelled to get in touch with us when he read about the dismal state of our libraries in the Washington Post. He was quite surprised that the article did not result in an outcry from the community. He, like so many Americans of achievement, had benefited from public libraries and the opportunities they offer at a very early age. He told me that other than his parents, the public library in his small town of Winsted, CT had been the greatest influence on his formative years. At the end of our conversation, he said that he wanted to do something, but he needed to think about what.

Six weeks later, Ralph Nader called again to say that he and his organization were going to launch the DC Library Renaissance Project, an 18-month effort designed to bring the necessary resources to the DC Public Library. The project was launched in December and has focused first on increasing the public support for DCPL. Nader and his project team began meeting in neighborhoods all across the District to try to engage neighborhood leaders in becoming more effective advocates for their libraries. The day of reckoning was March 20th, the day of DCPL’s budget hearing before the District of Columbia Council. On a rainy Thursday morning, the first day after we had gone to war with Iraq, scores of people turned out for a rally at the District Government’s John A. Wilson Building. Following the rally, those present, plus many others, filled the Council Chambers in anticipation of the hearing. Thirty-seven people signed up to testify including many new faces as well as those who have been library supporters for years. Not a seat in the room was empty. Ralph Nader himself gave very compelling testimony before not only the full Council Committee but also other members of the Council who participated in the hearing. Nader spent three-and-a-half hours at the hearing, listening intently and taking notes as people from all walks of life, testified. We just learned this week that the Council Committee voted to restore $1 million funding to our FY 2004 budget, thus obviating the need to close branch libraries to balance the budget. Nader is not satisfied with this amount-his goal is to move the Library from .7% of the City’s budget to 1%--which would raise our funding to over $40 million.

Now the Nader project is also engaged in trying to attract more grants, gifts and donations to DCPL. Nader understands the importance of having adequate public support before significant private resources will be achievable. He also believes that the effort around the DC Public Library may serve as a model for how to engage the citizenry in local government, one of the challenges that we in DC face more than most other jurisdictions.

Our Library’s vision statement reads:

The District of Columbia Public Library is a recognized force in the community for engaging the mind, expanding opportunities, and elevating the quality of life. We believe that equitable access to information, tailored to customers’ needs, equips people to learn all their lives, embrace diversity, and build a thriving city.

This statement embodies what I believe urban public libraries are trying to do all across the country. For some of us, the road ahead is still long. For others, the vision is being realized. The results come from a strong commitment to the values of public libraries as presented in “The Library Bill of Rights”, strong support from the principal funding source of local tax dollars, enhancements paid for from donations and grants, expanded activities in partnership with other community organizations, regular use, as well as involvement and advocacy from the constituencies we serve. Urban public libraries have the opportunity to affect the lives of many more people than we did in the past. The question is, “Will we be successful?” The answer is, “Yes – because if we are not, then our democracy will have lost one of its greatest assets.”

Before I respond to questions, I’d like to show you some pictures of some of the transformed libraries described in my talk.

About the Speaker

Mary E. (“Molly”) Raphael was appointed Director of the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) in February 1998, by unanimous vote of the Board of Library Trustees, after a nationwide search. She is only the second woman to hold this position in over 100 years. Since joining the DCPL in 1970 as assistant children’s librarian in a branch library, she has held a variety of progressively responsible positions with the DCPL before her appointment as Director. Ms. Raphael has been an active member of the 65,000-member American Library Association (ALA) for 30 years, serving on many committees and boards. She is currently serving on the ALA Executive Board. Her professional activities also have included president of the District of Columbia Library Association and co-founder of ALA’s library service to the deaf section in 1976. She is a member of the Urban Libraries Council, Freedom to Read Foundation, Friends of Libraries USA, and OCLC Public Library Advisory Committee. Ms. Raphael is a member of the 2001 Class of Leadership Washington and serves on the DC Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission.

Ms. Raphael was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up in Western Pennsylvania, as the third oldest of four children. She holds an undergraduate degree from Oberlin College (psychology major) and a master’s degree in library science from Simmons College.