Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Why Both School and Public Libraries?

From a lay point of view, questioning why we have both school and public libraries seems very reasonable and utterly logical. From the professional point of view, such questions, guaranteed, prove provocative if not exasperating. What if we ask, instead, what is the best way to give library service in a community? What do we want our libraries to achieve?

The facts in the matter are that there are many more schools, whether districts or buildings, than there are public library administrative units or buildings. And there are far more libraries than school and public ones. All libraries, except private ones, are the creations of publics, and as such they reflect what their parent publics want and need in terms of library services.

Of course, the realities are that libraries are only possible in ways and to the extents that their publics are willing to afford them. Large corporations spend millions of dollars on their libraries but always with the view that these expenditures are profitable. Yet corporate librarians will tell you, whether they are in a museum, a hospital, a government agency or a manufacturing conglomerate, that they always have to defend the value of and return from what they do. The value of information in the abstract is almost impossible to defend, and a research firm would much rather have one more chemist than another librarian when toting up the bottom line. And priority of interest prevails: the same community of 1100 people which may support five different churches cannot afford a single library.

Until we can offer people compelling research-based reasons for why a certain kind of library service is to a public’s advantage, we have to pursue a heavily value-laden path. That's what makes so difficult convincing people that a library designated to a specific mission can be most effective and efficient, that is - economic. To outsiders, libraries look alike – they all get Time Magazine; they all have dictionaries, encyclopedias and catalog access to their collections. What is the necessity, the public wants to know, of a library devoted to high schoolers and two blocks away one for the public? After all, when kids are out of school they go to the public library. Agreed. Some do, but many do not.

One area in pursuing information on which we do have considerable research from the 1930s onwards is on the high value of given the convenience factor and the detrimental cost of one's own labor as a barrier. This research harmonizes most obviously with individual observation and professional experience. My own testimony is that I once participated in an ad hoc faculty group on learning at a state university where, much to my surprise, I observed other faculty regularly exchange knowledge and publications among themselves to the exclusion of library use. All this sharing took place despite that their offices were built in wrap-around wings on two sides of the library, not more than 50 to 100 steps away for most of them. Convenience, or the perception of it, is the primary criteria by which most people choose the information they use; it has more impact than accuracy, currency, relevance or any other evaluative criteria. Thus, the closer you can bring information to its intended users, the easier you can make it, and the more help you can give directly to users, the more likely you will succeed in achieving satisfactory information use. More agony goes into the most apt sighting of a public library than any other building consideration; the strongest virtue of school library media services consists of placing them in the midst of the students.

Of course, I don't expect many people to believe this fundamental piece of library research. Most will not admit to the convenience principle, however well documented it is. Typically both users of libraries and non-users will tout how actively they pursue information in making decisions regardless of all the surveys that show library use somewhere between .5 and 1-3% out of the total of all information sources sought by the public. Co-workers and family members rank highest among sources because, need we say, they are close, readily available and trusted by information seekers – that is, convenient!

The most important reason for specific libraries dedicated to their users is just that: special treatment and specialized expertise devoted to and focused on the intended users. And of all the elements in library service, the essential one is staff. Nothing can substitute for a school library media professional, educated to quality service and giving that service on a par that is integrated with the best of other faculty.

This is not to say that in no case should a school and public or any other combination of libraries be combined. The point in sharing of services is that they reflect the needs of the whole community to be served, that they be planned to handle the number of issues that arise in jointly operated services, and that the issues be addressed and settled or answered in advance of a decision to co-locate. Problematic issues include questions of funding, governance, and staffing among other service questions; combined libraries fail most frequently over these issues when they are not resolved in advance.

Libraries, after all, stem from sharing with one another; otherwise we would each have our own stuff. We need to approach all questions of library service within terms of sharing, both among our users and with other libraries and other non-library sources.

A final word of advice: approach issues of joint libraries calmly as an idea to be explored. In providing library services, we have always to look at what is to be achieved, who is to be served, how they are to be included in the decision process, and what the evaluation will be. Joint library planning takes steps that represent the community of interest, that communicate between all affected parties and with the public. Potential partners have to examine what they can contribute to the whole and how they will continue to pay their share in order to accomplish the greatest total of which they are able.

The experience in Minnesota is that since 1990 when the law was changed to allow for joint school and public libraries, only one--already pre-existent--organized under these provisions. After almost ten years, only one other followed, and in that case a tornado obliterated both school and public library so they had motivation to start from scratch. Many other communities addressed co-location and eventually decided to remain separate, most in very small towns where co-location is especially appealing. Still, however, the seemingly obvious logic of combining libraries goes on. It can't be turned aside without the interested parties pursuing for themselves the steps they need to take to make it work, and thereby learning a lot more about libraries, their nature and services.

Welcome them.

Roger Sween wrote this article as a “think-piece” while a library development consultant in the Minnesota state library agency. He has been in his career a school librarian, an academic librarian and professor of library science, a public librarian, a freelance information broker, and a constant user of libraries throughout his life. This version has been revised over the original.
© 2009 by Roger Sween.

I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this blog. Personal comments may be made to my email address, give above.