Information forms the heart and sinews of a healthy democracy. I once visited a country in Southeast Asia and was very surprised to note the almost total absence of public libraries… or any discernable interest on the part of the population in reading. Like perhaps most in Falls Church, I find the idea of never having gotten lost in a good book almost incomprehensible!
Libraries are necessary components of any democracy. In addition to making information free, they foster intellectual discourse and both prompt and answer the question, “Why?” In this commentary I hope to reflect with you for a few moments on Falls Church’s Mary Riley Styles Public Library, and its relationship with you.
Like many things, the world of libraries is changing… rapidly. The birth of the Internet has been a boon for information. Some have predicted the demise of public libraries. In Falls Church we see no sign of this happening. Public usage of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library has increased year by year for the past several. During our last fiscal year, as an example, we circulated over 442,000 items to the public. This is an amazing number for a single-site library with only one circulation desk and limited staffing.
Still, we are in the midst of great change. The library recently instituted eBooks and e-audiobooks. These services appear highly successful – the services attract new readers and every day, and the collection numbers are rising steadily.
Providing these new formats, which the public expects, is expensive. Libraries are charged significantly more for online formats than are individuals – we pay institutional rates, which are often three or four times the cost of the same print book – and the prices continue climbing. There are other limitations as well: Many publishers will not sell eBooks to libraries or limit the amount of circulations an item can have before the library must buy and pay again for it.
Newspapers, journals and magazines, in particular, have the unpleasant habit of increasing their subscription fees at a rate higher than that of inflation. As this has prompted more and more individual subscribers to drop their own subscriptions, those available in the library are receiving strong usage.
Providing books and magazines isn’t the only function of the library, however. Public programs are a particular strength of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library. Last year 1,251 children joined our annual Summer Reading Program – an all-time record. Special presentations for children throughout the year were also very well attended; we were “bursting at the seams” for many programs.
Another essential aspect of the modern public library is its provision of the Internet and basic computing technology. At Mary Riley Styles Public Library, where we make 16 computer terminals available, we find they are busy for much of the day, every day. Residential Internet service is expensive, and so is the computing technology required to use it. Many use the library’s Internet to keep up on news, use our paid-subscription online services, and also hunt and apply for jobs.
A successful library must never rest on its laurels. Mary Riley Styles Public Library was awarded three out of five stars by Library Journal this year – for the fifth year in a row. Only 262 libraries in the nation received the designation, out of 7,570 public libraries evaluated. The selection criteria included such factors as active library users (9,382 City residents hold active library cards), visits by patrons (307,466 patrons visited us last year, according to our front door counter), and public programming (15,761 adults and children attended our public programs last year).
To safeguard the library’s ability to continue serving its patrons – and also prepare for the changes of tomorrow – the library’s Board of Trustees and library staff are engaging in an extensive planning process designed to forecast our needs through the next 20 years. How big or small a building will we need? How many books will we own? In what formats will they exist? As part of that planning process, we will ask for your ideas toward making that future as bright and useful as the past has been.
Our foundation, the Mary Riley Styles Public Library Foundation Trust, is indispensable in helping fund the library’s work. While the majority of the library’s funding comes from the City of Falls Church and some monies from the state, the Foundation provides those “extras” that are the hallmark of a modern library. It has purchased eBooks, DVDs, audiobooks, Freegal (a free, downloadable music service), equipment, and the library’s public wifi access. The library’s friends and patrons donated over $20,000 to the Foundation this year, and we’ve made each dollar count. Please consider donating – information is available on www.fallchurchva.gov/library or via any Board or staff member.
Bradley Gernand is chair of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library Board of Trustees.