Guest Column: What is ‘just a library’ today?

Editor’s note: The following is in response to the Feb. 13-19, 2013, guest column, “Why can’t our library be just a library?” by Tim Hughes.

By Paul Logli
President, Rockford Public Library Board of Trustees

In a recent column, Tim Hughes asked the question, “Why can’t a library just be a library?” He then goes on to criticize just about any library activity that is not exclusively dedicated to the circulation or use of printed materials. His mistaken view of the true role of the modern and evolving library of the 21st century has given us a great opportunity to respond to his various points.

Mr. Hughes continues to be profoundly disturbed by our Young Adult Zone. Yes, we do have young adults who visit the library for the express purpose of meeting up with other teens and playing video games (all of which have an ESRB rating of “E” for Everyone or “T” for teen-agers 13 and older). However, many of those students have developed relationships with our staff members. They’ve become members of the Young Adult Advisory Board, involved in selecting materials for teens (including books!), volunteering at library events and in the community, and helping the library connect with other teens. They’ve entered the Young Adult Writing Contest, thanks to encouragement from staff. They’ve checked out books, movies, used the Internet and more (despite Mr. Hughes’ suggestion to the contrary). We’ve extended our reach into the lives of these teens, and we consider that a successful program.

Mr. Hughes next levels his criticism on the way the Summer Reading Club — the library’s largest and longest-running program — is handled and administered. Summer setback, the loss of reading skills over the summer, is one of the major causes of the reading achievement gap in low-income students and can be largely prevented by reading as few as six books over the summer. RPL’s finishing goal for readers is 15 books, which in studies has increased reading proficiency over the summer months.

Mr. Hughes takes issue with the kick-off party and the fact that attendees aren’t registering for the reading club within the physical confines of the library building. Last year, the club enrolled close to 11,000 kids, teens and adults — only 1,500 of whom registered at the party. The others registered at any of our libraries or at outreach events throughout the summer. The RPL Summer Reading Club also boasts a 27 percent finishing rate, which is high among our peer libraries. We think that getting families excited about reading over the summer months to prevent summer setback is worthy of a party, and we’re glad that we’ve developed such a loyal following over the years.

Mr. Hughes references The Sullivan Center as a, “gift … whose costs keep going up.” The Sullivan Center, in the brief time RPL has had ownership, has already proven its potential to realize the goals we’ve set for it. Not only has initial library programming been successful (just look at the amazing results of the Community Scholarship Fair, held in the space in January, as an example), but the space is already being booked by outside groups. In fact, library staff are fielding calls and balancing the immediate demand against the time required to make improvements and set ongoing policies and procedures. The cost figures referenced by Mr. Hughes were already anticipated in a pro forma budget prior to the library’s acceptance of the building, and some projects are even coming in under budget.

Rockford Public Library is working to address the diverse needs of our customers. Our physical collection has experienced a net growth of 34,000 items since 2009, yet we’ve added more than 53,000 downloadable books and audiobooks. We now circulate a variety of devices, including e-Readers, Playaways and Playaway Views, in addition to providing wireless access and computers within our buildings. RPL maintains more open hours than most comparable peer libraries, albeit spread across more locations. Our program offerings for children, teens and adults rated a 98.6 percent satisfaction rating in a recent community survey, a percentage practically unheard of in any industry.

Mr. Hughes wants us to be “just a library.” What does that mean in an information age where our population wants and needs materials in a greater variety than ever before? What does it mean for the basic premise of libraries that we, as a community, can afford and provide shared resources that would be otherwise unavailable to the individual? What does it mean for RPL as libraries around the nation and the world embrace identities as gathering places, hubs of culture and enrichment, and centers of technology?

As for the Board of Trustees, we believe we need to be more than “just a library.” What we need is to be a library in the 21st century, to honor our place as a “sanctuary of knowledge and civilization,” while understanding that our community’s needs are different today than they were 100, 50 or even 10 years ago. We strive to be a place where education and entertainment coexist, where we respect the diverse nature of our community’s information needs and where learning can happen through a variety of channels. The board, administration and staff at the library is ready, willing and able to engage in further dialogue with our community. What we are unwilling to do, however, is to be satisfied with being “just a library.”

Paul Logli is president of the Rockford Public Library Board of Trustees. He can be reached at

From the Feb. 27-March 5, 2013, issue

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