Information Innovation: Metro Transportation Library Leads The Way

Brigham Young University plugs their library service by capturing potential users’ attention through a parody of the popular Old Spice commercials, via YouTube

An old axiom in libraries is that when the economy goes down, library patronage goes up. Therein lies the challenge: responding to the need for information (and keeping the doors open) when resources are stretched thin or disappearing altogether.

A new fiscal year is under way, and libraries in the current economic recession are feeling the pinch like never before. In addition to the expected call for traditional “core” services to continue, other users want libraries, whether they are public, academic or specialized, to embrace new technology, products and services.

The American Library Association reports a “perfect storm” of growing demand for library services and shrinking resources to meet that demand as state and local jurisdictions cut funding, often several times in the same fiscal year.

In the face of cuts in service, hours of access, and budgets, we wanted to highlight and celebrate the efforts of those who are working hard to respond to these challenges. Innovative efforts, both local and large-scale, are not only addressing user needs, but are now more easily shared with and replicated by other institutions.

NPR is quite optimistic, reporting yesterday that libraries are poised to be “the next big pop-culture wave.” It’s a refreshing take on the current state of providing information, so it’s a good time to review some of the enormous challenges facing every type of library as well as our own activities and accomplishments.

Each April during National Library Week, the American Library Association releases their State Of American Libraries report. The 2010 report and other current research detail some ominous findings and trends, including:

71% of public libraries provide their community’s only free public access to computers and the Internet, and one-third of Americans over age 14 used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet last year. One can’t overestimate how many library computer users are searching for a job

96% of Americans feel that school libraries are an essential part of the education experience, yet entire school districts (including many large ones) are choosing to entirely dismantle their school libraries

90% of college students regularly turn to libraries for their online scholarly research databases and course-related research, as these resources provide credible content, in-depth information, and the ability to meet instructors’ expectations, but academic libraries find it difficult to maintain their leading role in digitization efforts to provide unprecedented access to millions of volumes in the face of severe budget cutbacks

American Library Association President Jim Rettig notes that “As illustrated in the ALA’s State of America’s Libraries report, in times of economic hardship, Americans turn to — and depend on — their libraries and librarians.”

Our public, academic, and specialized libraries are thinking outside the box to meet their growing needs. Libraries are increasingly taking access to their collections and services to where their users are. For some, this means access to their websites and online catalogs via smart-phones and other mobile devices. Libraries have incorporated catalog-search widgets into their Facebook page. We made our online catalog of over 45,000 items in our collection accessible via smart-phone last year.

For others, this means taking the physical collections out of the traditional building to where their users live, work and play. Libraries are starting to fight back against unconventional competition from Amazon and Netflix by putting libraries in the path of the customer, in places such as supermarkets.

Slate recently reported on libraries getting a “mall makeover.” In Dallas, one of these “in-your-face” shopping center locations circulates more material than a traditional branch library eight times its size.

In Northern California, Contra Costa County Library promotes “Library-A-Go-Go” service that includes not only a shopping center location, but two automated book-dispensing machines at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations.

As a governmental institution, The Metro Transportation Library’s primary user audience is Metro employees. We have been a leader not just in the transportation library community, but in leveraging rapidly evolving technology to continue and improve service in any number of ways.

We were the first MTA department to provide internet access to employees, to launch an MTA intranet site, to start a blog (Los Angeles Transportation Headlines in 2006, and still going strong), to dive into social networking (our Facebook and Myspace pages), to create a YouTube video channel, build a Flickr photo-sharing site and the first MTA tweets came from the Metro Library Twitter account (1,300 followers and growing) . We have been at the forefront of sharing information in innovative ways, launching MTA’s only Scribd document-sharing site and virtual representation of Metro in Second Life.

As we move forward in this new fiscal year, we will look at how best to both serve our audience and remain a leader in the transportation library community, while adapting to the rapidly changing technology and other challenges around us.

We will continue to harvest born-digital documents to capture them before they disappear from the Internet. We will scan and store rare and fragile archival resources to preserve them for generations to come. We will continue to provide both access and findability as best we can, so that our users can get what they want, when they want it, in methods and formats most convenient for them.

Most of all, we will continue to collect, preserve and make accessible those resources that will help Metro succeed in its ambitious mobility agenda for the entire region. We do this because we are committed to our profession’s incredible ability to not just survive in tough economic times, but to thrive as well.

Resource List:

Opportunity For All: How The American Public Benefits From Internet Access At U.S. Libraries (212p. PDF : University of Washington Information School, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, April 2010)
Opportunity For All: Research Brief

Libraries And The Recession, American Library Association, April, 2010

Libraries Get A Mall Makeover,” Salon, July 6, 2010

Libraries Focus On Convenience With Mall Locations,” Associated Press, July 6, 2010

The State Of America’s Libraries Annual Report (66p. PDF), American Library Association, April, 2010

Toward A New Alexandria: Imagining The Future Of Libraries,” The New Republic, March 12, 2010

Why The Next Big Pop-Culture Wave After Cupcakes Might Be Libraries, NPR, July 20, 2010