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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: June 2018

10 - Public libraries



The political, social, technological and financial landscape in which public libraries operate has undergone dramatic change in recent years, presenting the sector with daily challenges ‘in the field of digitization, changing usage patterns, and evolving expectations of patrons’ (Irwin and St-Pierre, 2014, 1). In countries such as the UK, public sector budget cuts have resulted in widespread library closures and had a negative impact on traditional metrics such as visit and lending figures (Anstice, 2015). Efficiency measures and staffing reductions have led to an increase in self-serve, community and volunteer-run facilities and have engendered a culture which is increasingly reliant on external funding. Yet, rather than accepting their muchprophesied demise (Worstall, 2014), public libraries across the world have responded to this altered environment and to a ‘revolutionary shift in user behaviour’ brought about by the ascendancy of the ‘networked information landscape’ by developing innovative service-delivery models, multi-functional library spaces and new ways of working, and by reinventing themselves as ‘invisible intermediary’, ‘memory institution’, ‘learning centre’ and ‘community resource’ (Brophy, 2008, 8).

In North America, early literacy and lifelong learning remain strong focuses for public library programming, as do developing and providing services to underserved populations and socially excluded groups such as homeless, disabled and incarcerated populations. Increasingly, however, public libraries are also embracing a new identity as digital literacy and inclusion centres: providing free computer and WiFi access and developing electronic collections, which continue to be in high demand. In a 2013 national survey of Americans aged 16 and older, 77% identified free computer and internet access as a ‘very important’ library service and indicated a strong interest in the wider uses of technology in libraries (Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell, 2013). The cumulative results of the Impact Survey (Impact Survey, n.d.) also provide good evidence of how patrons are using library technology in the USA and the significant outcomes and benefits they report from its use (Crandall and Becker, 2016). And libraries are responding to these needs: investing in more e-books and diverse eresources such as magazines (Recorded Books, 2016; EBSCO, n.d.), comic books (Midwest Tape, 2015) and internet-based learning tools such as Gale Courses (Gale Cengage Learning, 2015) and ( Inc, 2015), and facilitating public access to new technologies ranging from 3D printers to recording studios (Zickuhr, Purcell and Rainie, 2014).

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