Public Libraries Occupy a Hallowed Space in the Community and in Public Consciousness
“I think public libraries are the quintessential ‘safe space,’ and that’s something that I don’t think can be replicated by any other civic institution,” said Alex Poole, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s Department of Information Science. “They’re a fundamental cornerstone of a democratic republic. If you look back on the history of libraries, books and information were rather jealously guarded for many years…I think most people tend to forget how important that was to allow your average citizen access to all of this information.”
While public libraries have long served as portals to information, their role in the community has greatly expanded over the last few decades. Take the Free Library of Philadelphia, for example. With 54 branches and more than ten million in-person and online library visits in 2016, the Free Library caters to a massive, and more importantly diverse, group of patrons. That means that each individual branch is responsible for playing its own unique role in the community it services.
“Libraries’ roles in urban communities vary radically, because public libraries are bound to serve the particular needs of their individual communities. Some of the most common roles are as educational support, job training support, literacy support and as entertainment. But it really does vary by each particular library, as it’s their job to determine what the needs of their communities are,” explained Dr. Denise Agosto, the program director for Drexel’s MS in Library and Information Science program. Dr. Agosto specializes in public libraries and multicultural issues in youth library services.
This is especially true in a city as racially and socioeconomically diverse as Philadelphia, where 26% of residents live below the federal poverty line. Free Library patrons aren’t just looking to check out the latest novel; they’re turning to the library for essential resources they can’t find elsewhere.
“Look at Philadelphia and the digital divide. We forget that a lot of folks don’t have access to high-speed, high-quality internet. The library is a place where you can actually get that. Getting high-speed internet and then getting to pursue your questions about, let’s say, citizenship information, health information, something as basic as voting. It’s a fundamental institution in our society, and I think it’s often taken for granted,” said Poole.
How can library science programs prepare students to work in urban libraries? According to Agosto, the key is teaching students to work with diverse populations.
“A person doesn’t need specific training to work in urban libraries versus suburban libraries versus rural libraries,” she said. “Public library work translates very well. What they would need above all would be understanding of urban populations and a willingness to work with diverse populations. We hope that all students come out of the [Drexel] program with those attributes.”
Drexel’s MS in Library and Information Science offers a new User and Community Services specialization that prepares students for work in public libraries (urban, suburban or rural). For students who want a hands-on learning experience in urban libraries, they can choose a project related to this field through the program’s recently added capstone project.
Agosto is proud of Drexel’s program and commitment to training community librarians, and jokes that if you want to find a Drexel-educated librarian, all you have to do is walk into a Philadelphia library.
“When I go into a Philadelphia library, easily half the people working there are my former students,” Agosto said with a laugh.
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