Innovative library services: some kudos and a rant

student writingLibraries exist to serve the needs of their public. Traditionally they have existed to serve needs for information and entertainment. That accounts for the books, periodicals, computer resources, and audiovisual collections, but not necessarily every service or collection.

The Helen Plum Library in Lombard, Illinois lends out paintings and sculptures. I found the sculptures handy when I was teaching a humanities course, but apparently most people borrow them just to redecorate their homes for a short time.

In earlier posts 3 unusual and unexpected library services and 5 more unusual and unexpected library services I have called attention to unusual ways academic and public libraries have found to serve their patrons. Printing fish? Cooking classes in a professional kitchen?  Here are some more innovative  programs.

School libraries, unfortunately, seem under attack. Too many of the articles I have read still seem to find it unusual that libraries can be anything more than book warehouses. How will today’s children get to know libraries any better if they are denied access to them now?

Lending seeds

library lends seedsA couple of libraries in Chemung County, New York lend seeds, up to five packs per patron. Not the kind of hybrid seeds you can buy in an ordinary garden center, either. These seeds are open-pollinated or heirloom seeds.

Patrons plant them in their gardens and then return a similar number of seeds from their harvest. If they can’t get the seeds to grow, they can return a similar number of suitable seeds, but they must verify the sources.

For patrons with a brown thumb, the libraries have partnered with the Cornell Cooperative Extension. One of its experts gives gardening classes at the libraries all year that cover such basic concepts as seed planting, garden layout, or battling plant diseases. Apartment-dwelling patrons can learn how to plant container gardens.

It’s the library’s way of helping people eat healthier food and also preserving species of seeds that might otherwise be neglected

Just for teens

Queens Teen Library

Queens Teen Library

Just what is a library? It doesn’t require books. Bookless libraries have been around for decades. They always offer computer-based services.

I have always considered that the minimum requirement is librarians. Now, I’m not so sure.

Patrons of the Far Rockaway library in Queens, New York complained about the disruption caused by teens who descended on it after school. The library responded by opening a special teen library a block away.

It takes the concept of a “teen library” very seriously. From 2:30 to 6:00 on school days, it admits only 12- to 19-year olds. The teens can dance and play noisy games as much as they want.

The teen library has 70 magazine subscriptions and 40 computers. It offers such services as college fairs, GED prep classes, a Regents Exam prep club, and other programming common to libraries across the country. It has a gang awareness program, which is very important in a community with high unemployment and many low-income housing projects.

No librarians work there. Its director is a certified mental health counselor, and youth counselors comprise the rest of the staff.

The Queens library system as a whole has completely revamped its service model. It responded to budget cuts as recently as 15 years ago by protecting circulation, which meant that some branch libraries with meager circulation could only open two or three days a week. More recently, they have given priority to keeping all 62 branches open at least five days a week at the expense of the book budget.

Libraries have long had to battle the misperception that they are only book repositories. Patrons come for computer services, or perhaps just to get indoors in bad weather.

Teens have their own special problems, many of them emotional. The teen library is just another way that libraries respond to community needs. Still, I hope all those youth counselors recognize that they can’t perform the duties of a librarian—and recognized when their patrons need a librarian more than a counselor. But librarians are just a block away.

Healthcare in the library

Numerous urban libraries have begun programs in healthcare, partly to serve the homeless. The Toledo Public Library in Ohio already provides health-care navigators to help patrons get insurance coverage and United Way representatives to help people with their taxes.

It has offered its staff training classes that focus on serving the homeless, overcoming poverty, and dealing with mental-health issues. It is actively looking at programs other similar-sized urban libraries to see if it can expand its health offerings.

The Pima County Library in Arizona has developed a partnership with the county health department and even offers medical care. It has hired a nurse to serve its main library and one branch. He performs such services as testing blood pressure and treating minor wounds.

Nurses employed by the health department serve other branches. It seems odd that some people would rather meet a nurse in a library than at a more traditional medical facility, but they do. The library gets another benefit besides a new way to serve patrons. Branches with a nurse available make fewer calls to 911 for patron incidents.

The District of Columbia Library employs a full-time social worker, who helps the homeless, visits a library branch at a jail, co-ordinates with other service agencies to provide food and housing, and trains library staff so they can be more comfortable dealing with their less traditional patrons.

School libraries becoming an endangered species?

Elementary school library

Elementary school library

With all of these expansions of library services, what is happening in our public schools is truly sickening.

I have already called attention to Chicago Public Schools’ short-sighted policy of assigning its librarians to the classroom.

Ohio has joined the Hall of Shame by repealing some of its minimum educational standards, including the requirement that each school district hire one librarian for every 1000 students.

But that only follows what some school districts have already done anyway. Not only had some districts eliminated library positions in order to meet its budget, but one actually locked the library and shrink wrapped the shelves so no one can use either the space or its resources!

Former Unites States Commissioner of Education Harold Howe noted that, “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.” And now we know.

States are no longer funding education as if it matters. The days of state supported universities are a distant memory. The best we have now is state assisted universities, and funding levels are coming perilously close to requiring us to find yet another weaker adjective.

Of course, we have to have a minimum number of school days in a year. Every day snow day must be made up later. We also have mandated end of grade testing. Teachers are required to spend instructional time teaching students how to take the tests, which are given well before the school year ends.

There is not enough time at the end of the year for teachers actually to teach their subject matter, and students are exhausted from the pressure of those tests. Makeup days get tacked on after teachers have nothing more to do than entertain and babysit. One local district has scheduled a makeup day on the day of graduation and another the following Monday.

At least teachers in North Carolina still have access to the library and more than likely have a librarian, who is about the only person in the building in a position to guide each student’s learning from the earliest to the latest grade at that school.

Politicians from Congress to the local school board always seem to find money for pet projects. Actually teaching anything becomes expendable. Teacher’s unions always complain about there not being enough money. Then they act more like labor unions and less like educational organizations as they protect known incompetent teachers from dismissal.

Meanwhile, the most successful school districts in this country are not necessarily the ones with the most money. They’re just the ones that choose to devote whatever money and instructional time they have to educating students.

Photo credits:
Student writing. Some rights reserved by Star for Life
Chili pepper seeds. Chilies chillies peppers seeds pods by Jon Sullivan
Queens Teen Library. Queens Library for Teens Facebook page
Elementary school library. Some rights reserved by bestlibrarian


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