Compass Survey Summary
This article covers the following topics:
- Increased Patron Needs
- Public Library and State Library Services
- Grants & Funding
- Broadband and Computers
- Awareness and Promotion
Project Compass issued the Library Responses to Economic Tough Times survey to state library staff in late 2009 in order to collect two data streams:
- to ascertain increased patron needs related to unemployment;
- to record library responses to those needs, both at the public library and the state library levels.
The responses, collected from all 51 states (including DC libraries), filled out the picture of the state profiles posted in the Compass Snapshots section. The more material outcome of survey feedback is to inform the creation of the curriculum for the spring summits. It is important to acknowledge that library response to the economic crisis has been robust. Project Compass will build on what has already been achieved, focus on key strategies and successes, and look toward recovery in the ongoing turbulent times.
The open-ended comments of the survey proved to be a rich source of information about the perceived workforce resource needs from patrons, the variety of responses enacted by libraries, and the goals for moving forward with services and responses. The attached document enumerates the repetition and frequency of open-ended comments. Conversations were also conducted in three online meetings following the close of the survey to provide context and better understanding of the participants’ responses. Comments from those meetings are incorporated in this summary.
It was no surprise to see the high percentages of respondents who perceived increased and urgent patron needs in public libraries in each state over the last 12 months. People are reeling from the impact of the recession and they are turning to libraries for help.
The highest percentages were in the Applying for Jobs category:
- Finding jobs (94.6%)
- Resume and cover letter writing (96.4%)
- Filing online application forms (98.1%)
Other items that topped the 90th percentile:
- Test preparation (91.1%)
- Basic computer skills (98.1%)
In the open-ended comments, increased use of the public computers and free Internet access for unemployment and job-seeking functions topped the list of urgent needs. It was noted that many patrons have canceled home Internet service to save money. Social services came in a robust second, with patrons seeking information about food stamps, temporary shelter, food banks, community organizations, health clinics, health insurance, in addition to financial services requests.
In California, libraries reported:
“…much of the increased demand is generated by people who are new to the library or who are returning after a long absence. These people are unfamiliar with the range of library services, don't understand basic procedures or know how to use library technology (e.g., databases, self-check machines), and sometimes have unrealistic expectations or exhibit inappropriate behavior.”
Alaska reported little or no increase in patron demands due to the fact that high unemployment is nothing new in their state.
“…the demand has been long-term since 10 years ago when the pulp mills shut down. Used to relatively high unemployment rates (regularly above 8 or 9 per cent, some much higher)”
Although not directly related to workforce needs, libraries have become more frequent destinations for free entertainment. Many comments reported increased circulation of materials and media, participation in library programs, or just killing time at the library in the face of joblessness.
“Circulation of all formats in the collections have also seen extreme increases as customers have reported that they are no longer purchasing books and other materials, canceling magazine subscriptions, and not renting or downloading movies and games. There has also been a striking increase in the attendance at all programming events for all age levels.”
(See the attached document for an enumeration of the frequency of perceived patron needs extracted from the open-ended responses to question #6 in the survey.)
The perceived level of increased demand for public library services related to unemployment was definitely weighted toward the significant or at least moderate end of the scale.
Services in highest demand include:
- Job related web resources (75.9%)
- Patron training for job related needs (74.1%)
- Patron training for basic computer skills (70.4%)
Increased demand for services offered by the state library to support public libraries in assisting job seekers generated a more even spread of responses, distributed between significant, moderate, and no change.
- The highest percentage was for state hosted web resources (33.3%)
- Partnerships with other agencies tied between significant and moderate increase (31.5% each)
- The majority indicated no change in online reference services (33.3%)
- Staff training got moderate ratings:
- Face-to-face training (38.9%)
- Online training (37.0%)
The high demand for test preparation and computer skills has libraries seeking solutions to patron training needs. Several survey respondents mentioned subscribing to the Learning Express Library database. It offers a comprehensive array of test preparation and skill-building courses at all grade levels. Tutor.com and JobNow were also mentioned as options. The products are licensed, which makes partnering to share costs feasible. The major drawback (aside from cost) is that users must already have adequate computer skills in order to use the service. The Connecticut State Library partnered with the state Department of Labor to bring their jobsite training into the library.
Some respondents reported that their libraries offer one-on-one, on-demand training to patrons.
"We've offered resume reviews for seven years now and it's definitely been more popular this past year."
"Libraries in NY are offering more one-on-one sessions with employment counselors and librarians."
Although the demand for staff training showed moderate percentages, a few comments indicated an emergent need for training to deal with stressed patrons.
“…increase in librarians just needing someone to talk to about helping people, time constraints, lack of jobs in the area, how far to go in helping people fill out unemployment forms, etc.”
“One of the questions asked by library staff was ‘What do you do at the service desk when someone is so desperate about their job situation that they start to cry?’"
"I know the Black Belt Librarian has been very popular [with staff]."
One participant suggested that the impact of the economic downturn hit library staff so fast that there hasn’t been time to stop and train effectively. Some states are adjusting their training focus for staff, for example, adding classes on finding resources for job-seekers or on network security for protecting private patron data.
Most state library respondents reported existing partnerships with a variety of agencies to deliver workforce development services. The highest percentages were for:
- State government employment agencies (65.3%)
- Other state government departments (e.g., commerce) (63.3%)
Respondents identified barriers to forming partnerships:
"…state agencies (such as Dept. of Labor) received a great deal of ARRA money; however, they are not inclined to "share" it even if the partner (in this case libraries) can greatly assist and support their one stop centers."
“…some state agency leadership doesn’t understand our role in partnering with them. We were unable to work out a mutually satisfactory arrangement.”
Others reported a variety of successful and sometimes unique partnerships:
“We are hearing from many job centers that they are overwhelmed and can't begin to address the needs of all their clients. They said they are grateful to libraries for anything they can offer to help…”
“NY is also partnering with public television to produce episodes as part of a ‘Help Wanted’ grant. Each program will focus on a family or individual and show how libraries and other agencies are helping with economic hard times."
“DC Public Library is providing low cost, refurbished PCs to graduates of the Library Series Computer class.”
Meeting participants stressed that it takes time and energy to cultivate partnerships, and that sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
“It takes a lot of conversations to build the relationships.”
“Also there needs to be an education process. Libraries don't always understand what other agencies can do for them and vice versa.”
“It helps to put a face on the organization and understand what it does. We invited local Workforce agency people when doing workshops around the state.”
Although libraries have a long track record of forming beneficial partnerships, many state library representatives commented that partnerships are not often initiated state-wide. They are more likely to form at the local or regional level and percolate up. If they are successful and applicable to a wider scale, the state library may play a role in facilitating for wider participation. New York indicated that their top goal is to help public libraries develop collaborative partnerships with local NYS Department of Labor One Stop Centers.
The survey did not ask specifically about funding for library services, but the number of comments on the topic shows it is foremost in the minds of the state library agents. The two main grant sources mentioned were BTOP and LSTA funds.
Attendees at the online meetings helped to sort out the language and the relevance of BTOP for libraries. BTOP, the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program from the NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration), is part of the federal government’s 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also loosely referred to as “stimulus funds.” Another part of ARRA issued discretionary grants to state governors, which may or may not have been directed to libraries in each state.
There are three components of federal grant funds applicable to broadband:
- Support for the deployment of broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas: this is highly technical and mainly useful to service providers.
- Enhancement of broadband capacity at public computer centers: this is where libraries fit in.
- Encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service: increasing the use of broadband across communities, especially the underserved
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also in the grant game; this Library Journal article clears some of the confusion about their involvement with Opportunity Online, BTOP, and the direct grants to five states (Arkansas, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia). ALA also has an informative section Know Your Stimulus.
Specific applications for BTOP funds include:
- “to build out mobile computer labs and develop more training opportunities for library staff.”
- “to help libraries obtain adequate broadband access, tech support, and workstations for the disabled to better serve their communities.”
- “for public access computers for public libraries.”
- “to provide training to the public in public libraries to improve computer skills and help small business owners and nonprofits in e-commerce and maintaining computers and networks.”
- “for video-conferencing at 20 libraries.”
- "workforce development was specifically addressed in our second round of BTOP grant applications."
The consensus is that the process for obtaining BTOP is arduous, “horrendous” in the words of one applicant, and the reporting requirements are even worse. Another applicant had to work in the wee hours of the morning over a period of days in order to get unencumbered access to the online forms.
Each state has a different schedule for distributing LSTA funds to libraries in the state, so there was a spectrum of responses on the usefulness of these funds to address the needs of the unemployed. Many states may have already committed LSTA funds in their 5-year plans; some states have no LSTA money for public libraries. However, quite a few comments spoke to effective redirection of LSTA funds to adjust to the urgent demands of the economic crisis.
Specific applications for LSTA funds include:
- “provided direct LSTA funding to several public libraries for workforce development projects.”
- “using extra stimulus funding we received through the LSTA program to create a non-competitive JOBS category in 2009 to get money out quickly to regional systems to immediately help the libraries already very active in helping people who were trying to find a job or improve their job skills.” (See a summary at http://www.dpi.wi.gov/pld/lstajobs.html )
- “give grants to libraries in high unemployment areas as a pilot and hope to use statistics to help persuade labor to work with us.”
- “increase and maintain computer labs and public access computers.”
- “switched funds intended for open competitive grants to just be for ‘hard times.’”
- “offer targeted LSTA grant program ‘Libraries for Job Seekers’"
- "trainer traveling around the state to give workshops on economic gardening"
The frequent reference to broadband in the survey responses indicates its strong connection to workforce development. The increase in patron traffic on the public computers certainly adds up to a need for more computer terminals, which, in turn, begs better connectivity. However, it’s the nature of access by the unemployed that strains systems; they need to use e-government resources, fill out online applications, and access testing databases. The world has gone online and the US must catch up with fast transmission of data. Louisiana took advantage of stimulus funds to build computer centers at 68 public library systems throughout the state.
Several comments in the survey prompt the question: Does library response to workforce development needs offer an opportunity to promote the essential services of libraries to the wider public? Many respondents commented on the strain of meeting increased patron and community demands while bearing the impact of cuts to their own budget and staff.
“Libraries do not stand outside of the economic downturn.”
“Our libraries are struggling with their own budgets being diminished while patron demands and needs continue to skyrocket.”
"[we’re] too busy treading water to build the ark."
Proactive efforts to promote awareness in their communities include:
- Visits to state legislatures
- Communication with state and federal elected officials
- Displays at workforce-related conferences and events
- Using the power of language to redefine libraries as “instruments of recovery” to strike a positive tone and a motion toward the future.
Some see awareness as a primary role for the state library.
“We need to move beyond crisis intervention to employment stabilization.”
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