Two pieces of interesting writing on libraries came across my virtual desk today.
The first was the following piece by Julienne Molineaux From the New Zealand Herald. In it she points to some real risks involved with the merging of The National Library, Archives New Zealand and Department of Internal Affairs.
Government agencies are often restructured in the belief that the change will lead to better performance.
But whether it is organisational design or information technology projects, bigger scale doesn’t always mean better results. In fact, larger scale brings with it many problems.
Yet the Government and the State Services Commission are proposing a merger between Archives New Zealand, the National Library and the Department of Internal Affairs, with economies of scale in IT as the driver of the change.
The New Zealand state sector has a history of IT project failures, the $100 million-plus police INCIS endeavour being the most infamous.
The bigger the IT project, the bigger the concentration of risk.
The more complex the project, the more likely it is to flounder, go over-budget, go over-time, fail to deliver on its promises and be difficult for users to operate.
In proposing the merger between the archives, the library and Internal Affairs, State Services Minister Tony Ryall has admitted there are no burning problems that need solving. Rather, the rationale is the desire to develop an overarching platform from which New Zealanders can access civic information.
The merger is being promoted as providing a single decision-making centre in public technology services “to determine a whole of government approach to managing information”.
While the current fragmentation does indeed make accessing information more difficult for the public, a serious question has to be raised. Just how feasible is the Government’s dream of a unified civic information “super” platform?
The second comes from Chicago where Fox News ran a piece looking at whether Libraries are necessary or a waste of tax payers money (you can guess what conclusion they were aiming for). In response the Chicago Public Library Commissioner (I have no clue how that relates to our structures, I am presuming the Head Librarian) Mary A. Dempsey wrote the following letter. It is one of the best defences of a library system I have read:
Dear Ms. Davlantes:
I am astounded at the lack of understanding of public libraries that your Monday evening story, Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money? revealed. Public libraries are more relevant and heavily used today than ever before, and public libraries are one of the better uses of the taxpayers’ dollars. Let me speak about the Chicago Public Library which serves 12 million visitors per year. No other cultural, educational, entertainment or athletic organization in Chicago can make that claim. Those 12 million visitors come to our libraries for free access to books, journals, research materials, online information and computers, reference assistance from trained librarians, early literacy programs, English as a second language assistance, job search assistance, after school homework help from librarians and certified teachers, best sellers in multiple formats (print, audio, downloadable and e-book), movies, music, author events, book clubs, story times, summer reading programs, financial literacy programs or simply a place to learn, dream and reflect.
The Chicago Public Library, through its 74 locations, serves every neighborhood of our city, is open 7 days per week at its three largest locations, 6 days per week at 71 branch libraries and 24/7 on its website which is filled with online research collections, downloadable content, reference help, and access to vast arrays of the Library’s holdings and information.
Last year, Chicagoans checked out nearly 10 million items from the Chicago Public Library’s 74 locations and the majority of those items were books. (Your ‘undercover cameras” shots were taken in a series of stacks devoted to bound periodicals used for reference. Next time, try looking at the circulating collections throughout the building.) Especially in times of economic downturn, smart people turn to the public library as their free resource for books, information and entertainment in multiple formats – print, online, in person.
And yes, we proudly provide free access to the internet because so much information today is found online, something you should know from your own work. In fact, the Chicago Public Library provided 3.8 million free one hour Internet sessions to the people of Chicago in 2009. The Internet has made public libraries more relevant, not less as your story suggests. There continues to exist in this country a vast digital divide. It exists along lines of race and class and is only bridged consistently and equitably through the free access provided by the Chicago Public Library and all public libraries in this nation. Some 60 percent of the individuals who use public computers a Chicago’s libraries are searching for and applying for jobs. We’re proud to continue to be able to use our resources to help them do so.
The Libraries vs. Schools or other public agencies funding argument posed by your story is a non-starter. The mission of the Chicago Public Library is and always has been to make available to all people from birth through senior citizenship, the resources they need to enjoy a good quality of life, to participate in lifelong learning, and to become and remain civically engaged. If information is power, then the public library is the source of that power,
We devote considerable effort and funding to providing early literacy books, programs , story times and training for parents, caregivers and preschool teachers of infants and toddlers so that those children start kindergarten ready to learn.
Chicago’s schools offer the shortest school day in the nation. As schools slash their budgets for school libraries and shorten their classroom teaching time, thousands of children flock to Chicago’s public libraries every day afterschool, in the evening and on weekends for homework assistance from our librarians and certified teachers hired by the public library.