It’s 8:55 on a sunny September morning in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Every few moments another car pulls up to the library’s drive-through book-drop and deposits books, CDs and DVDs. A small group of people is gathering in the library’s front lobby awaiting opening time. A woman in a business suit glances at her watch as two older gentlemen share their observations on the weather, Washington, and the world. A man in his mid-thirties carrying a bundle of overstuffed file folders walks around a kiosk, which is filled with notices of community events. An electronic signboard at the top announces the library programs scheduled for the next week.
A mother and her eight-year old daughter sit on a bench pouring over what appears to be a text book. A woman in a hotel housekeeper’s uniform joins the group and a middle-aged man drives up in a pick-up truck and parks near the library’s entrance just as a staff member approaches the inner door with keys in hand. Another day is about to begin at the public library.
As the door opens, the gathered group streams into the building, each with a specific purpose in mind. The senior men head for the comfortable chairs in the periodicals section where the staff has just put out today’s morning newspapers. They’ll soon be joined by three or four other "regulars" who will sip coffee, scan the newspapers and discuss the issues of the day. Occasionally they glance up at four flat screen TVs mounted on a nearby wall that are set to closed captioning and are tuned to CNN Headline News, the Weather Channel, CNBC, and Fox News.
The woman in the business suit heads to a study table, opens her briefcase, takes out her laptop computer and spreads some papers out next to it. It only takes her a moment to log on to the library’s wireless network so she can check her e-mail and updated information from her home office in Atlanta. This library serves as her office away from home whenever she’s servicing clients in Virginia. The man with the file folders heads to an area under a sign that reads "Foundation Collection." He opens his files and sits down at a computer terminal to continue researching potential sources for the grant application that he’s preparing for a local non-profit organization.
The hotel housekeeper and the man in the pick-up truck both head to the computer reservation terminals and are quickly assigned a computer to use. Before she leaves, the woman will update her resume, will scour several job sites, and will submit her qualifications to three prospective employers. She’s pleased that she’s able to include the fact that she recently completed an online course in hospitality management using library computers as her classroom.
The man in the pick-up truck man also checks his e-mail. He does so every morning at opening time. He’s exceptionally pleased today when he finds a response to a message he sent yesterday to his daughter, a Second Lieutenant in the Army, who has been stationed in Iraq for the last seven months. Assured that his daughter is safe and sound for another day, he sends off his daily message and then moves on to several websites. He checks the Washington Post and New York Times headlines and proceeds to another site to see how the Nationals fared in last night’s game against the Phillies.
By now, the mom and her home-schooled child have already picked out several books on early settlements in the Americas. They had checked the library’s catalog online from home and were able to go directly to specific materials on Christopher Newport, John Smith, and the Jamestown Colony. The Youth Services Librarian asks if they’re familiar with the "Virtual Jamestown" website and directs them to a link on the library’s web page that takes them to images of original maps and copies of correspondence written by the early settlers. The mother and daughter will be joined in a few minutes by two other home schoolers and their parents for a weekly study session held in the library’s group study room.
Meanwhile, the first of several class visits for the day is arriving. A class of 24 fifth graders gather in the all-purpose room for a brief orientation session. A reference librarian is about to present a PowerPoint™ that covers how to use both online and print reference resources. After the presentation, half of the class will go to the library’s "Tech Center" to gain some hands-on experience using quality electronic resources while the balance of the class gets a similar opportunity to learn more about some of the library’s print reference tools. After an hour, the groups will switch places. By the end of the visit, the students will understand that research involves much more than doing a Google™ or Yahoo™ keyword search.
Across town, the library’s bookmobile has just arrived at a senior housing complex. About 10 seniors climb aboard to browse the newly restocked shelves. Two people pick up reserve books they had requested during the previous weekly visit of the bookmobile. One of the bookmobile staff unloads a small cart of books and takes them into the community center building where she exchanges the materials in a small deposit collection. The staff member also drops off a Bi-Folkal™ kit at the office of the Activities Director and picks up a kit that was used for a program during the preceding week. After 45 minutes, the bookmobile folds up shop and heads to the next stop at a pre-school several miles down the road.
Back at the library, a group of emergency medical technicians is gathering in the all-purpose meeting room that was recently vacated by the fifth graders. They’re about to participate in a video teleconference program on emergency preparedness. The session is part of a series of distance education classes offered by the Tidewater Community College. Meanwhile, the library’s public access computers have filled to capacity. A library technology assistant is helping a woman format a newsletter for the local historical society using Adobe Pagemaker™. The woman took a class on using the software package two weeks ago and just needs a quick refresher in how to nest a photo within a block of text.
s Another computer user is logged on to a session of an online Human Resources Management course he’s are taking through the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The woman at the next workstation is researching used car ratings and prices.
Eight or nine people are scattered among the tables at the library café. A woman sitting at a table by herself is lost in a new treasure she found in the new book section as she sips her cappuccino. At another table, a man pages through a book that he just bought at the Friends of the Library bookshop that adjoins the café area. A lawyer and her client sit at a third table and sip coffee as they review contract language before heading to a real estate closing.
Throughout the day, a constant stream of people combine their visit to the library to select books, books-on-CD and DVDs with a viewing of the new exhibit of a local artist’s work in the gallery area. Reference librarians are busy answering questions that arrive in person, by telephone, and through the library’s website.
Several people are in the local history room. One is methodically working her way through microfilm reels for a long discontinued newspaper. She’s doing research for a local history column she writes for the current weekly paper. Meanwhile, another person sits at a computer workstation and transfers records from 3x5 cards into an online cemetery index that is being produced for the library by the genealogical society.
Mid-afternoon, a pre-school class arrives at the library. They’re headed to the children’s program area to listen to a master storyteller share an African folktale called The King and the Tortoise. At the end of the tale, each child will go to the craft area where they’ll make a tortoise to take home with them.
After school, the teens arrive and quickly head to the Teen Area. Three begin to work on a PowerPoint™ presentation at an oversized computer workstation. The presentation will be their report for a group project they’re doing for their social studies class. A pair of sixteen year olds don headphones to listen to a DVD that they’re watching in the video den. The video will be the subject of a discussion program scheduled for later that afternoon. They’re going to compare Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film version of War of the Worlds with H.G. Wells’ original novel written in 1898. The program was planned by the library’s teen advisory council, which is composed of a dozen kids ranging in age from 14 to 18.
The after school hours also signals the arrival of a host of younger schoolchildren, some of whom arrive with a parent or grandparent. Other children arrive by themselves and quickly choose their spots in the children’s room. Several spread out and start working on their homework while others head directly for the "series" books to see if they can find the next episode in the lives of their favorite characters. A retired teacher who volunteers four afternoons each week during the school year makes the rounds providing homework help. A children’s room assistant is showing a man and his six-year old son where to find the books on dinosaurs. A children’s librarian is beginning an after-school program for fifth and sixth graders. Many of these children are regulars who show up nearly everyday. Several kids are sitting at colorful computer stations playing educational games.
The middle of the afternoon also brings a tour that includes local elected officials, the director of the chamber of commerce and the advance team of a high-tech firm that is considering relocating to the area. The library is one of the premiere sites on the community’s "economic development" tour that is given to commercial prospects.
The meeting rooms at the library are busy throughout the evening. A group of 15 would-be entrepreneurs are meeting in a large conference room with representatives of the Small Business Administration and the Senior Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). Among other things, they learn that they can attend a class later in the week in the library’s Tech Center on how to develop a business plan. In another conference room, a group of 12 mystery fans are gathered to discuss "Trace," Patricia Cornwell’s latest "whodunit." Several of the study rooms are in use. In one, a literacy volunteer tutors a young man in his twenties who is working toward a Graduate Equivalency Diploma (G.E.D.). In another study room, a second volunteer who is fluent in Spanish works with woman who has recently arrived in the United States and who is beginning to learn English.
A public hearing about a proposed highway expansion is taking place in the al-purpose meeting room. A family story hour is being held in the children’s program room. The interactive session helps new parents learn how to engage their infants in important pre-literacy activities that help develop speech and motor skills.
A steady stream of adults and young adults pass through the library doors all evening long. Some are looking for a good murder mystery; others search for a book to help them deal with a health issue or to give them decorating ideas. College students occupy several study carrels scattered throughout the building. The Tech Center is offering a training session in how to use Microsoft Excel™. Every workstation is filled.
At 10 PM, the library finally closes its doors for the day, but library service doesn’t end. Well into the night, people are accessing the library’s web site to reserve and renew books and to access the "Find It Virginia" databases. Reference service also continues after hours because a group of Virginia libraries have banded together to offer virtual reference service on a "24X7" basis. Citizens can call an "800" info line number anytime between 9 in the evening and 9 in the morning for reference assistance. Each night of the week, a different library in a different part of the state provides the staffing and resources for the service. The phone calls are seamlessly routed to the appropriate library. The virtual reference service also answers reference questions online in "real time."
Far-fetched? Not really. The scenario portrayed above isn’t a dream. At least in some areas of the State, the description of a day in the life of a Virginia public library is closer to fact than fiction. Unfortunately, in other areas of the Commonwealth, the reality is significantly different.
Virginia’s connection to books and reading is particularly strong. After all, the core of the grandest public library of them all, the Library of Congress, was first housed on a mountaintop near Charlottesville and the main buildings at the Library of Congress are named for Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson’s personal declaration that "I cannot live without books..." is enough to warm any librarian’s heart.
However, some other words of Jefferson and Madison are even more important in considering the public library as an important institution in society. Both Jefferson and Madison frequently linked an informed citizenry with liberty. Jefferson intoned,
Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own governours, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
We cannot help believing that if Jefferson and Madison were alive today, that they would be powerful advocates for public libraries. In 1787, Jefferson wrote the following words to Madison:
Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.
The American public library stands as one of the nation’s most important institutions. It has been called "the people’s university" because it is the place where anyone seeking knowledge can access information without a means test or reference to the social register. It is a thoroughly democratic institution that crosses all socio-economic lines and offers relevant services to all.
In the early 1990s, many pundits were predicting the demise of the public library. They reasoned that the Internet would make the public library extraneous. Instead, what we have witnessed over the past fifteen years is the re-emergence of the public library as an even more robust institution. The number of people passing through the doors of public libraries is at an all-time high. Cities and counties across America have been building twenty-first century libraries that combine books with non-print media and electronic resources. In 2005, more people will pass through the doors of public libraries than through the doors of any other type of public building. Turnstile counts at the nation’s sports arenas pale in comparison to door counts at public libraries.
How are public libraries in the land of Jefferson and Madison faring? How well is the education of the common people being "attended to?" How are Virginia’s public libraries contributing to the vitality of the Commonwealth and to the quality of life enjoyed by Virginians? The report that follows examines these important questions and offers concrete recommendations outlining how public library services can be strengthened.