Findings - Quality of Public Library Services
If one sought a single word to capture the state of public library services in Virginia, it would have to be "uneven." Himmel & Wilson has worked on statewide studies of library services in more than twenty states. The spectrum of public library services in Virginia is among the widest we have witnessed.
However, the breadth of this spectrum isn’t entirely bad news. The libraries at the "high end" offer some of the finest public library services we have seen in the nation. For example, Arlington’s Central Library’s hours of service (76 hours per week - open four nights a week until 10 PM and open 8 hours on Sundays) are the best we have encountered. The highly developed web presence of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library provides a model worthy of emulation by much larger libraries throughout the United States. The adult programming offered by the Fairfax County Public Library for people of all ages is truly exceptional. Several libraries in the Hampton Roads area have highly developed partnerships that support various aspects of early childhood development. The Hampton Public Library’s exemplary Healthy Families Partnership with the Hampton Health Department and a variety of other community-based agencies seeks to ensure that every child in Hampton is born healthy and enters school ready to learn.
At the same time, the consultants also found that Virginia has a significant number of libraries at the bottom end of the spectrum. For example, the consultants visited a public library in Virginia that offers no public Internet access. We discovered a regional library with no web presence. Three libraries in Virginia expended less than $ 1.00 per capita on new materials in 2004. Our site visits revealed that numerous library buildings are not in full compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act Guidelines. Several libraries offer little or nothing in the way of non-print formats.
"Quality" can be a somewhat subjective term when it is applied to library service. Because public libraries fulfill many different community needs, there can be differences of opinion in terms of what constitutes quality. For example, if an individual values public libraries solely for their print materials, she or he may not be troubled that some of Virginia’s libraries offer little or nothing in the way of audio or video materials. On the other hand, the expenditure of less than $ 1.00 per capita on new materials might be seen as a significant deficiency. An individual with a disabling condition may not care too much about the collection of materials housed in a facility that is inaccessible to them.
No single measure can be used to determine whether a library offers quality services. It is necessarily a combination of factors. In the end, quality is a matter of the degree to which libraries are relevant to the people in their communities and are meeting individual needs. However, there is considerable agreement about many of the components that contribute to quality.
Virginia has a valuable document in place that attempts to identify these components. Planning for Library Excellence, while a bit dated at this point, is a fundamentally sound tool. There is no question that if all libraries in Virginia met all of the standards and guidelines presented in the document that the people of Virginia would be receiving improved services.
The eight categories used to organize the standards and guidelines document are also sound. They are:
• Governance, Administration, and Planning
• Library Services
• Community and Public Relations
Unfortunately, most of the standards and guidelines presented in Planning for Library Excellence have little in the way of teeth. There is, in fact, a relatively small set of "requirements" that must be met in order to qualify for state aid. The consultants have reviewed the requirements and believe that they are fundamentally sound. We believe that enforcement of this basic set of standards is critically important as a first step.
One particular concern in terms of the quality of library service is in the area of staffing and continuing education. As was illustrated in the introduction to this report, the 21st Century public library is more than just a passive warehouse of books. Professional leadership and an ongoing honing and refining of staff skills and competencies are critical to the success of Virginia’s public libraries.
Unlike some states, Virginia has been largely successful in addressing one major challenge. Through incentives for the formation of regional libraries, Virginia has been able to create larger, more efficient units of service. However, larger and often more complex governance units also deserve a high level of professional expertise in planning and implementing quality library services.
The past year has actually seen a deterioration of Virginia’s certification program for librarians and library directors at a time when what is truly needed is an even stronger program. Greater coordination of continuing education for library staff at all levels is also lacking. Other states on the eastern seaboard, including Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware, are working to develop comprehensive programs that will ensure that library staff at all levels will have the appropriate skills to offer quality library services.
While a updating of the State’s standards is needed (especially in the staffing and technology areas), an analysis of how State policies and funding programs encourage libraries to make progress toward the standards and guidelines is also needed. If Virginia’s public libraries are going to serve the public well, "library development" needs to be more than part of the name of a division within the Library of Virginia. Developmental policies and funding incentives that encourage excellence also need to be in place.
Developmental incentives such as requiring all library directors to hold a master’s degree in library science from a program accredited by the American Library Association in order to qualify for State aid is not just desirable. It is essential if Virginia’s libraries are going to flourish.
Virginia has a fundamental framework in place that describes and, in some cases, quantifies "quality" public library services (Planning for Library Excellence).
Virginia has a significant number of exemplary libraries that offer quality library service.
Virginia has a significant number of libraries that do not have the resources necessary to offer quality library service.
Virginia has some developmental policies and funding incentives in place that encourage quality library services.
Continuing education opportunities for librarians and for other library staff are somewhat limited and offerings by various providers (e.g., the Library of Virginia, Virginia Library Association, individual libraries, etc.) are largely uncoordinated.
Certification of library directors is an essential tool in efforts to ensure quality public library service.
The quality of library collections in most Virginia public libraries is heavily dependent on funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Much of the technology in place in Virginia’s public libraries is the result of grants and gifts; many libraries are unlikely to sustain their technology in the absence of supplemental funding.
Many, if not most, of Virginia’s public library facilities are inadequate in terms of amount of space, handicapped accessibility, and technological infrastructure.