As a librarian at a regional library I asked myself, in view of the major public libraries (the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Library und San Francisco Public Library) I visited at the beginning of my stay: How do such U.S. libraries create a balance between their role as research library and their responsibility to the public?
Briefly put: in quite different ways. To me, the current discussion concerning the renovation of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library precisely mirrors this dilemma. How does a library maintain its position as a research library with valuable holdings, one that is open and freely accessible to the public, while simultaneously doing justice to the interests of a broad public and also reacting in a practical way to the information needs that arise from complex social developments (financial crisis, migration patterns, etc.)? And though the merging of the Mid-Manhattan Library with the Research Library in the Schwarzman Building is, for good reason, quite contested, I find the courage and the mission involved in the merger admirable. Doesn’t this do more than previously to foster the long-standing and equally contested American dream of the dishwasher who, with the support of libraries and education, advances in society? It was also striking how often library fees were discussed, with the majority tending to be against them; even though everything in American society costs something, libraries remain free of charge. Even though the dream of the dishwasher, in its simplified form has, of course, never corresponded to reality, I found the basic idea and educational ideal expressed by it echoed in the public libraries. Library users are supported in their educational goals in the most diverse situations and at the same time the social process is so precisely observed that libraries can design programs that exactly suit their users. This can take the form of the digital learning lab in a neighborhood in San Francisco that ordinarily has little to offer its young people or of advising unemployed investment bankers in Manhattan or of an “information commons” for those who wish to work with advanced creative and multimedia editing software or the “New Americans” program in a Queens neighborhood in which x-number of languages are spoken.
A further observation, which as a regional librarian I found fascinating and unexpected in its intensity: Just as in Germany, great value is assigned to regional collections and regional research. And in what an exciting and timely fashion these are implemented! The “Lunch Hour” exhibit currently at the New York Public Library addresses a theme that is typical for this city and its history and presents this theme so appealingly that the exhibit was full during each of my visits. And the other public libraries also focused on themes of regional history in which the public had a clear and active interest. Regional artists exhibit in the library and exhibits are combined with workshops with up-to-date content designed for various target audiences, while digitized resources are introduced through innovative web projects. The strong identification that New York City residents feel with their city or their borough is of course also addressed.
In conclusion I should add that not everything was only positive, of course, and that libraries in the U.S. have to struggle against problems that are similar, and that the financial crisis has dealt another, much more serious blow to library budgets. I could have written here about those things that were difficult to carry out or that one would not wish to do in the same way. But why do that? What made an impression on me was the positive energy that is typical of first encounters in the United States, which can only be of benefit to a service-oriented institution. This energy and the friendly manner in which I was greeted at every single library I visited are things I wish to keep with me….In addition to the wealth of ideas that a four-week library tour brings with it…
Monday, 22. October 2012
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